Whittier now pushing for private prison deal

Posted: Sunday, November 25, 2001

KENAI (AP) -- After two other Alaska communities abandoned plans for a private prison in the face of public opposition, Whittier is now stepping in. The city is trying to try to drum up support from the state Legislature and private contractors to build an 800-bed medium-security prison.

Last fall, voters in the Kenai Peninsula Borough resoundingly defeated a plan to build a private prison near Kenai. Earlier, a plan to build a private prison on Fort Greely, near Delta Junction, fell apart amid community controversy.

''We watched the news, and as soon as we saw the vote fail in Kenai, we started making the chase from this end,'' Whittier City Manager Matt Rowley said.

Whittier, bounded by chilly Prince William Sound on one side and imposing mountains to the other, is well suited for a prison, he said. A project of that magnitude could also stimulate the town's economy, now dependent mostly on tourists and boaters.

Wedged between Anchorage's municipal boundary and the Kenai Peninsula Borough, Whittier has little flat land and few structures beyond the two tall condominium buildings, originally built by the military, where virtually all the residents live.

The prison might go on a 69.5-acre parcel next to an abandoned government tank farm.

The Kenai prison project was led by a group of companies including Cornell Corrections. But Rowley said Whittier codes prohibit the city from seeking a single-source contract, and it will have to go through competitive bidding to pick a team of contractors.

Rowley's immediate goal is to convince the Legislature to rewrite a bill to authorize the private prison in Whittier. The Kenai Peninsula Borough accomplished the same feat last session, wresting the designated prison site away from Delta Junction.

Whittier may have competition in Southeast Alaska, however.

Ketchikan is pursuing the prison project, and Wrangell is considering the idea. Wrangell's residents head to the polls Feb. 19 for an advisory vote on a private prison.

''I think a spirited competition between the communities is healthy,'' said Jack Shay, Ketchikan's borough mayor.

While the Delta Junction and Kenai prison bids bogged down amid public opposition, Rowley said Whittier residents have expressed strong support. There has been some rumbling from private prison opponents, Rowley conceded.

But city leaders don't anticipate a citywide election, and say the Whittier City Council could authorize any agreements.

For years, state lawmakers have wanted a new prison in Alaska to ease overcrowding. More than 800 Alaska prisoners are currently housed in a private institution in Florence, Ariz., costing the state $18 million a year.

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