Letters to the Editor

Posted: Sunday, September 23, 2001

Prison would provide exactly kind of jobs peninsula needs

A week or so ago someone named Van Hatten wrote that jobs associated with the proposed new prison were not the kind of jobs we need in our community. He was not very specific, so I looked into what kind of jobs these are by calling the borough and representatives from Cornell Companies.

I learned a couple thinks that I did not know:

Mr. Van Hatten is a state employee union activist who opposes privatization;

The proposed prison is not private; it will be funded by the state, owned by the borough (at no risk to the taxpayer because the project is secured by a 20-year lease from the state) and managed by Cornell under a strict contract with the borough and the Department of Corrections; and

The jobs are exactly the kind of jobs we need on the Kenai Peninsula. While the highest percentage of jobs are security related, there are many hundreds of other jobs ranging from temporary, union scale construction and trades jobs to permanent, prevailing wage jobs as nurses, counselors, teachers, facility maintenance, food services, imformation systems, clerks, records technicians and a host of contractual services.

I would like to ask, what industry would supply better jobs than these?

Economic development that provides stable jobs outside the fishing and oil industries is positive economic development in my book

Jason L. Bergevin


KNA did its research on prison project

As the last few days of the campaign draw near, like all campaigns, the ones who most fear the loss, start mud slinging. But we will stand fast to the facts that we have stood by from the start of this campaign because they are proven facts. We will not resort to bringing people who do not live on the Kenai Peninsula to help demean others to try to prove a point.

We have all lived next door to Wildwood Correctional Center and have not had an incident happen that will endanger our loved ones. We are not about to start now. Cornell Companies will have a five-year contract to run the new medium securit prison; they will have to prove that they can run this prison or their contract will be terminated. They will be on the inspection platform from day one, and they will have to prove to a 12-person committe that everything that they do will not jeopardize the public well-being.

Kenai Natives Association had done a lot of research on companies before we chose Cornell Companies to partner with on this very important project. They have implemented programs in their own facilities that seem to work in cutting the recidivism rate. Since we are a unique state with numerous cultural backgrounds, we need a company who would be flexible to our programming needs.

It has been a proven fact that families do not move to areas where their loved ones are imprisoned. We are speaking of Alaska prisoners, and why should they leave their homes in the village to move to a city where they would have to endure the hardships of not having their extended families to help them, to a city where they would have to have a vehicle to travel everywhere and anywhere? Having their imprisoned loved ones in the same state is a benefit to these families. It may take a couple months to save enough money to make a brief visit, and it will not cost a year's salary as it did before to travel to Arizona to see imprisoned loved ones.

When we start the construction on this new medium security prison, there will be numerous jobs available to all qualified people. The economic boost will continue even after the construction is done. It will require service jobs, supplies, materials and maintenance positions as well as indirect expenses to each and every business related to running this new medium security prison and even to the ones who aren't directly related to the prison, because the money will be spent here on the Kenai Peninsula.

When it is done, like Wildwood Correction Center, it will disappear into the woods and people will not know that we have a medium security prison in our backyard, but we will have the millions of dollars spent here on our Kenai Peninsula. So please vote "Yes" for Proposition 1.

Elsie M. Hendryx

Vice president

Kenai Natives Association Inc.

Many reasons to support prison project

I am writing in response to the recent letter to the editor submitted by my fellow Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member, Grace Merkes. While I respect the opinions of Ms. Merkes and her many years of public service, I must disagree with many of the points in her letter. Therefore, here are some of the reasons I am voting "Yes" on Proposition 1.

The Legislature has made the decision, which the governor has concurred with, that the next prison facility to be built in Alaska will be owned by a local government and operated by a private company on behalf of the state. Make no mistake, this medium security prison will be built somewhere in Alaska in the next few years. Communities such as the Mat-Su Borough, Fairbanks, and even Ketchikan have expressed interest in this project if we don't go forward with it. They obviously can see the benefit of having over 200 new permanent jobs in their communities. Shouldn't we?

Regarding the private versus public argument, it should be noted that the state of Alaska already uses a privately operated prison to house 800 prisoners in Arizona and and has done so for years. In that light, the issue seems to be related more to the location of the prison rather than the operations. Where were the opponents of private prisons when the state moved 800 prisoners into the private prison in Arizona ten years ago? Why was this not important to them then?

This project will be paid for using an arrangement similar to those made in Seward for the Spring Creek maximum security prison and in Anchorage for the new Cook Inlet Pretrial facility. Those local governments issued revenue/lease bonds that are backed by their contractual agreements with the state and that pose no risk to the local government. Similiarly, our borough will provide the facility, but the Department of Corrections will oversee the day to day operations and activities of the private operator and will have the right to terminate the contract of any private operator that does not run the facility to the standards of the Alaska Department of Corrections. The borough will not be responsible for running the prison. And the operator must fully indemnify the borough to protect against any lawsuits, just like the arrangements we have for both borough-owned hospitals.

As to the money to borough has spent to promote this prject, I have verified that the total amount spent to date is closer to $53,000, and not the $160,000 reported by Ms. Merkes, and these and most future development expenses will be reimbursed to the borough by the sale of the revenue bonds if the project goes forward.

"What will the borough get in return; what are the benefits to the borough?" 200-plus jobs! Over $9 million in payroll and benefits annually! Millions of dollars in local goods and services purchased annually! Thousands of dollars in new sales tax collections every year! Hundred of thousands of dollars in annual payments in lieu of taxes (PILT) from the private operator! The list goes on and on. If these aren't good enough benefits for the borough, then I don't know what is, especially in the face of 15 percent unemployment on the Kenai Peninsula in the winter.

There is no operations contract yet because there are too many issues with the state that must be resolved first to the satisfaction of the borough before any contract for construction, let alone operations can be negotiated and signed. However, many facts can be found in the history of this project. The state will demand, as required by HB 149, that the prison be operated so that it provides the same "degree of custody, care, and discipline similar to that required by the laws of the state." Cornell has also committed itself publicly, both to the state Legislature and to the Kenai Peninsula Borough that it will provide:

Local training offered at no cost to qualified applicants that meets or exceeds state and federal standards as part of their commitment to hire locally

Wages and benefits, including family medical, dental and retirement plans, that are equal to $35,000 per year for an entry level "rookie" security officer, with higher wages for experienced applicants

Staffing ratios, or the number of guards to prisoners, that will meet or exceed state standards

Overall security that will meet or exceed state standards

Rehabilitation programs, as mandated by HB149, that will provide "culturally relevant counseling services to incarcerated Natives," who make up over 36 percent of Alaska's prison population

HB 149 directs that this facility should cost 18 to 20 percent less than the average per diem rate for all state facilities which equates to at least $89 per day, while the current cost to house a prisoner in the private prison in Arizona is at least $69 per day, based on information from the Department of Corrections. No matter the number, the state is charged with bringing Alaska's prisoners home based on the final settlement of the Cleary court case, and the Department of Corrections plans to do so as soon as possible. But more importantly, Alaska is currently sending more than $20 million dollars a year out of state to Arizona. The citizens of Florence, Ariz., deeply appreciate our tax dollars being spent in their community as it helps them to build schools, athletic fields, community centers, roads, water and sewer projects and a flourishing economy. Is this how we want our millions of Alaska tax dollars spent? I don't think so.

Ms. Merkes' statement that "statistics show that only a very small percentage of (prisoners') families would move to be close to their loved ones" is important because opponents of this project have been using scare tactics by raising the specter of a flood of "those kinds of people" moving into our community. I have always been offended by this false, ugly, bigoted tactic, and I appreciate Ms. Merkes supporting my contention that the facts don't support the fear mongers.

In the last 14 months since this project first came to my attention, I have participated in numerous meetings of the borough assembly, meetings witht he borough and school district administrations, meetings with the Department of Corrections, meetings of city councils, meetings with civic organizations, attended dozens of public hearings, read hundreds of documents and engaged in countless conversations with individuals across the Kenai Peninsula. I have heard every possible arguement, no matter how outlandish, both for and against this project. And when it comes down to the facts, I believe this project holds temendous potential benefits for the Kenai Peninsula borough, with very little downside that I can identify to date. This issue requires that facts, not fiction and fear, be the tools voters will use to make their decision on Oct. 2. I believe that once you cut through all the fear tactics, misinformation and outright falsehoods, you too will vote "Yes" on Proposition 1.

Bill Popp

Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member

Kenai, South (District 1)

Private prison or corporate welfare?

Whenever a politician says "give me a blank check, and trust me to do what's right," a big red flag begins to wave, and loud alarms go off in my head. The latest alarm concerns the private prison issue in the upcoming Kenai Peninsula borough elections on Oct. 2.

I have lived here for many years now and have seen many scams sold to our elected officials. Remembering some of Alaska's history, tales of "Soapy" Smith immediately come to mind. In those days they used guns, knives and hired thugs to get whatever suited them. Today we see slick suits with smooth tongues, deep pockets and hired lobbyists. It appears these new "capitalists" are getting the best legislation that money can buy.

Under a very thin veneer of credibility, the private prison issue is really more about special interest legislation designed to make one large outside corporation a huge pile of money. A well-financed message put out by the pro group i s nothing more than fluff designed to make us feel warm and fuzzy about a really ugly self-serving plan. Anyone seeking answers to the hard questions, are given none.

This proposition appears to give noncompetitive contracts for design, construction and operation of a private prison in Kenai. The prison is to be built on non-taxable Native land, which will never contribute a cent to the boroughwide property tax base. But at the same time, citizens of the Kenai Peninsula borough will be held financially responsible for all construction and operations cost. Cornell will have no capital at stake, yet stands to realize huge profits when the prison is at full capacity. What other industry or business has been given a new facility, on nontaxable land, with absolutely no financial stake at all? Every other business in Alaska has to put up its own money or borrow from a bank. What makes this company so special?

A few minutes spent researching Proposition 1 will quickly reveal the truth. I recently visited the "search page" of an Alaska newspaper and typed in the name "Cornell" in the "archive" section. Additional searches for Allvest, Corrections Group North and Neeser will produce a better picture of the people now in bed with some of our elected officials. If you take a few minutes to research this proposition, I am confident you will be alarmed, if not disgusted, by what you see. And folks, the more you look, the uglier it gets.

We will vote this issue down on Oct. 2 and deal with those bad politicians supporting this type of special interest legislation at their next election. Our representatives must be held individually responsible for being so easily taken in by this kind of nonsense. At the same time we must give credit to our representatives brave enough to stand up to these bullies and their hired guns with pots of dirty campaign finance money.

Everyone in Alaska should become familar with this issue. When it's voted down on the Kenai Peninsula, I can almost guarantee it will rear its ugly head somewhere else. Remember, it's already been voted down in South Anchorage and Delta Junction. The poor people of Delta Junction had to defend themselves in several lawsuits brought by Cornell and the others. Does the Kenai Peninsula borough look forward to the same treatment after the Oct. 2 election? I say we kick these people out of the borough, and the entire state for that matter, before another community is forced into this ugly lose-lose situation.

If the state feels compelled to have more prison beds, then let them build and operate their own facilities. Prisons are a basic government function that hsould never have been privatized in the first place. I think the state of Alaska, Department of Corrections, the Legislature and the governor need to explain to us why they are unable or unwilling to build and operate a 1,000-bed prison for less than the proposed $89,000 per day (32,485,000 per year)! Why don't we keep all that money here in the state, instead of sending these huge profits to Texas?

Let's send these slick corporate carpetbaggers packing, and clean house of those weak elected officals so easily corrupted by promises of money and power. Please join my neighbors and me, voting "No" on Proposition 1.

Mike McBride


Prison questions, no answers

I have several points, questions and concerns about the issue of the private prison.

Cornell Corp. states that the initial pay for the correctional offices is $35,000. When it says that, it seems to be stated as "pay and benefits." Is the $35,000 the base salary? Or is it the entire cost to Cornell that would include the benefit package they pay for along with the salary? If it is the latter, then I think you could correctly surmise that the wage is not anywhere close to $35,000. (Funny, I just computed the $13.50 per hour touted as the certain beginning wage and at 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, it equals $28,080.) Hmmm, where is that additional $7,000?

Has Cornell stated what kind of schedule its correctional officer employees would have? Is it an eight-hour day or, as the state of Alaska correctional officers work, a week on and a week off? Certainly a factor in terms of job satisfaction, burn-out and sick leave abuse.

With all due respect to my Kenaitze neighbors, friends and fellow citizens, where have they been with their "culturally relevant" substance abuse treatment for the last 17 years at Wildwood Correctional Center? Certainly through the years some Native culture activities have been initiated at Wildwood, and I don't want to demean them (potlatches, talking circle), but nothing of the scale now proposed. Why not? Does substance abuse treatment only become important if you happen to be the seller of the land the treatment takes place on?

And is this "culturally relevant" treatment from teh Kenaitze point of view also rellevant to the incarcerated Yupiks, Inupiats, Tlingits, Aleuts, etc.?

Finally, on this particular issue, do the proponents of the prison really expect us to believe that just because the Native and non-native inmates are housed on Alaska soil that they automatically become amenable to drug treatment?

Where are the employees coming from? Wildwood Correctional Center struggles to find a job pool of people who want to work in a prison, who have basic qualifications and skills and who can pass the psychological evaluation. Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward remains understaffed to this day. Where are all the people who want these jobs, at a private prison? Why aren't they working in Seward?

Cornell states emphatically that no inmates will be released into the community. Inmates may decline to return to the city of their arrest and, in some cases, small villages may actually ban their return. Is Cornell going to force people to leave the area if tehy wish otherwise? Are they going to pay to the transportation costs? The contract with the Arizona prison has the state of Alaska paying transportation costs. So I guess Cornell will use the largess of the Department of Corrections to force people to go where they may not want to go. Inmates are people just like you and me. Many former inmates have relocated to this area and some continue marginal lifestyes, while others have become solid and productive citizens.

I'm sorry, but I get the strong feeling that most of the proponents of this prison are bound to make a great deal of money from it. That in and of itself is not a bad thing, nor is creating jobs and stabilizing the economy of our community. But when answers are unclear or problematic and money is the prime motivation (in my opinion), I think one's vision gets very clouded

If we must have a private prison, let's locate it where the largest work force is - the Anchorage bowl. That's where most of the prisoners are from; that's where the transportation costs would be the least; that's where the majority of the halfway houses and job locations are and that's where the infrastructure already exists.

But the very bottom line in my opinion remains: Do the state of Alaska and the citizens of the Kenai Peninsula borough really want to sell matters of public safety to the lowest bidder?

Sherry Lewis


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