Proposition 1: Vote 'Yes'

Posted: Monday, September 24, 2001

As you are aware I support the construction of a new prison adjacent to the existing facility in Wildwood. During my tenure as a state senator and as borough mayor I actively sought economic development on the Kenai Peninsula. Although a project of this nature was not available during my tenure, I would have fought actively in favor of such a project had it been available.

In Alaska, our economic cycle has traditionally been boom and bust because our economy has lacked diversification. This is especially evident on the Kenai Peninsula. Our local economy is intimately woven with the oil and fishing industries. When the price of oil rises our economy is booming, when it falls so does our economic outlook, likewise for the price of salmon. We are currently being presented with the opportunity to diminish the tremendous impact that these two have on our local economy.

The borough has proposed building an 800-bed prison on undeveloped land adjacent to the Wildwood facility. The $66 million facility will create 300 union-wage construction jobs. Once the facility is completed, the new prison will directly employ 200 individuals year-round. There will be an additional 200 new jobs in related businesses on the peninsula. On an annual basis the facility will inject $26 million dollars on the peninsula. This amounts to more than $550 million dollars over 20 years. The borough has received letters of support from the General Teamsters Local 959, the Carpenters and Joiners of America Local 1281 and the Laborer International Union of North America Local 341. These letters unequivocally support the project as good for the local economy on both a short-term and a long-term basis.

These jobs are being created with no risk to the borough and the local taxpayers. The borough will construct and own the facility and lease it to the state on a long-term basis. The facility will be financed by issuing a revenue bond, guaranteed by the long-term lease agreement with the state. The lease agreement will provide annual payments based on an occupancy rate of 800 inmates. The payment will be stable, regardless of whether the state fills the beds or they remain empty. This arrangement allows the borough to benefit from the economic development and to pass the financial risk to the state.

We have had a prison operating adjacent to the city of Kenai since 1985. The feared negative impacts have not materialized. The projected influx of inmate families has not been realized. The city of Kenai prepared a preliminary assessment of the impact of the proposed prison. As part of that report, the Kenai police chief contacted police chiefs in five communities across the country with significant prison populations. The police chief specifically inquired about the number of families that had moved to the area to be near their incarcerated family member. The police chiefs contacted indicated that they know of only a handful of families that had moved into their jurisdiction due to the prison facility.

The Legislature expects that housing inmates in a private facility will result in a 12 percent to 18 percent savings over housing inmates in a public facility. This savings comes from a reduction in unnecessary bureaucracy and a streamlining of operations. This savings is realized without increasing security risks to the community. The borough and the state will insist that the private operator comply with the state standards or they will not sign the operation contract.

Through a competitive bidding process, the borough selected Cornell Corrections to operate the proposed facility. Cornell currently operates 71 facilities in 13 states. All facilities operated by Cornell meet or exceed the safety and training standards for state-run facilities. In the preliminary report, the Kenai police chief also questioned his counterparts on the level of training received by the staff of the private facilities.

In communities where the local police chiefs were aware of the training programs, they stated that the private prison correctional officers were trained as well as, or better, than their counterparts in the public facilities. Community safety is a primary concern of both the borough and Cornell. I would not support a project that I felt would jeopardize the safety of our citizens. I also do not believe that the current mayor or the members of the borough assembly would take any action that would threaten the safety of citizens of this community.

On a philosophical level, people have expressed concerns about housing inmates in a private prison. The bottom line is that we already use private facilities to house Alaska inmates. We currently house 800 inmates in a private prison in Arizona, sending $20 million a year out of Alaska. If we are already housing these inmates in a private prison, why not move them to a private facility in Alaska?

We need to bring these individuals back to Alaska. They are our responsibility and should be detained and treated in our state. Proposition 1 does not offer voters the choice between a private or a public facility, that decision was made by the state Legislature several years ago. Proposition 1 simply asks voters whether they will allow the borough to construct a new prison on the peninsula, contributing $550 million to our local economy over the next 20 years.

Opponents are using scare tactics to urge citizens to vote No. They urge that the presence of another prison in the area will deter tourists. The proposed facility will be constructed on the north side of the current Wildwood facility. Neither facility is visible from the road. Unless a local resident informed tourists of their existence, most tourists would not realize that the present Wildwood facility exists nor would they be aware of the new facility.

Opponents also urge that crime will increase because the inmates will be released into our community. Standard operating procedures for the Department of Corrections require that inmates be returned to the community in which they were arrested. The only individuals who will be released in our community are those that committed their crimes here. This is another reason to support the present project. Cornell is committed to offering rehabilitation programs to help inmates change their behaviors.

Opportunities of this economic magnitude do not come along often. As we stand on the brink of a possible recession, are we prepared to turn our back on a project that will contribute over $550 million dollars to our local economy over the next 20 years? The jobs created by this project could conceivably shield our local community from the impacts of a nationwide recession. I believe that this project is good for the community. I urge you to join me in voting Yes on Proposition 1.

Don Gilman is a former Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor and state senator.

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