Unresolved issues related to private prison face Alaska

Posted: Friday, October 12, 2001

Kenai Peninsula residents made it clear earlier this month they were not interested in a private prison proposal. Nevertheless, discussion of the prison raised other issues that remain unresolved. Those issues should be addressed statewide before memories of what happened on the peninsula completely fade.

First is the issue of privatization of prisons. Proponents of the prison saw an economic opportunity in a legislative mandate to open a private prison in Alaska.

That mandate has not changed. However, if voters on the peninsula are any indication of how voters statewide think -- and we believe they are -- legislators should rethink their position on private prisons.

While there were many reasons people may have voted "no" in the Oct. 2 election, one of the clearest reasons is they believe private prisons are wrong. Many people think private business should not be allowed to profit from housing prisoners and all that entails. Another recurring theme of the anti-private prison arguments was prisons are a public safety issue and best left in the hands of government. (Corrections may be one of the few things some people believe are best left in the hands of government.)

Legislators should take a close look at those arguments. Do people in Ketchikan -- or any other place where officials see a private prison as an economic opportunity -- think differently from their neighbors on the peninsula? Does any community really want a repeat of the divisive arguments?

This fact remains: Alaska inmates are being housed in a private prison in Arizona.

If private prisons are wrong, then they are wrong everywhere -- and private prison opponents still have their work cut out for them. Those opponents should convince legislators that private prisons are the wrong way to go, and money should be spent to expand existing state prisons to bring home those inmates now in Arizona.

If private prison opponents drop the ball now, they will send the message they are opposed to a private prison only if it is in their own back yard. State employee unions that fought the private prison also need to bring their convictions to the Legislature.

Another issue that begs to be addressed is the disproportionate number of Alaska Native men who are incarcerated. It is one of the reasons the Kenai Natives Association got involved in the private prison issue.

The statistics should trouble all Alaskans. Alaska Native males make up 7 percent of the state's general population, but account for 37 percent of the state's prison population. Is racial profiling making Alaska Natives more prone to arrest and conviction? If alcohol abuse is the primary reason more Alaska Natives are in prison, are there better alternatives than more prison beds to solve that problem? This is an issue that needs to be addressed by both the executive and legislative branches of state government, as well as in our communities.

The third issue that the private prison raised that remains worthy of discussion and action is prevention. It's all well and good to want to bring Alaska inmates home and offer culturally relevant programs with the intent to decrease the recidivism rate, but can more be done to decrease the need for more prison beds in the future?

In the long run, won't money be better spent on prevention? If economic development is the goal, our focus as a community should be on quality education and healthy, stable families -- and keeping people out of prison. Those things don't produce fast money -- and they require some upfront expenditures -- but over the long haul they go a long way toward creating economically viable communities.

The thing about prevention efforts is that it is impossible to measure the rate of return a community gets for its investment. No one can say those efforts will result in 200-plus year-round jobs or a $66-million construction project. Our best guess, however, is that such efforts are invaluable to a community's well-being.

Lastly, it's important to remember those Alaskans now behind bars were our neighbors before they went to prison and they will be our neighbors when they get out of prison. Does the current system provide them with the necessary tools to find the will and way to become contributing members of the community upon their release?

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