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Private prison campaign heats up on Kenai Peninsula

Posted: Sunday, September 23, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- As the Oct. 2 election approaches, campaigns are nearing full boil in the debate over a borough-funded private prison on the Kenai Peninsula.

Pro-prison radio spots are airing back-to-back with anti-prison commercials. Prison supporters such as the Kenai Natives Association and Cornell Corrections have taken out large, full-color ads in local newspapers while those fighting the project are investing in fiery flyers.

Last week, a new group appeared to help carry the banner for prison opponents. Public Employees Local 71, which represents blue-collar workers in state institutions, mailed flyers and recorded slick radio ads focused on perceived safety concerns with privately operated prisons.

Local 71 jumped in because, according to assistant business manager Jim Ashton, the union felt compelled to counter a common star-spangled campaign sign from the vote-yes side that simply says ''vote for jobs.''

''It's not saying, 'Vote for a prison in your back yard,' and I find that to be untruthful,'' Ashton said.

At issue is a private prison proposed to handle some 800 state inmates now housed in Arizona because of inadequate prison space in Alaska. Kenai Natives Association came up with the idea to put a prison on its land and the Kenai Peninsula Borough hired a group led by Cornell to promote the concept.

Union leaders say their members stand to lose under a scenario in which prison jobs go to nonunion workers. They anticipate lower wages and benefits.

A yes vote by Kenai Peninsula voters will allow the borough to continue with a process that could result in a state- and borough-funded facility operated by a private company, most likely Cornell. A no vote would stall the project for at least two years.

Prison backers decry the vote-no advertising as baseless, last-minute fear-mongering.

''They're really not talking facts. They're talking about inmate escapes and things, which doesn't happen,'' said Blaine Gilman, campaign manager for the vote-yes side.

The radio spots are paid for by a group called Public Safety Yes -- Private Prisons No, formed by Local 71 and backed by the state Public Safety Employees Association, which represents Alaska State Troopers.

Gilman and Cornell officials have been speaking out all summer, trying to dispel fears of escapes and prisoners taking up residence in Kenai. Cornell officials say they have a solid safety record.

Cornell has run several ads talking about its community involvement and its escape record. The company may consider changing tactics, Gilman said.

''I think we've had to come out with a bigger footprint because of the negative radio ads put out by the other side,'' he said.



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