The private prison being proposed by the Kenai Native Association received a lot of attention at the Kenai City Council meeting Wednesday night, with testimony lasting well over an hour.
In the end, though, the council tabled a resolution urging the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly to pass its measure when it meets Tuesday night, which would authorize the borough administration to negotiate with the state to bring a new prison here.
After rumors that the private prison plan in Fort Greely was dying, KNA initiated its plan for a similar prison on its land next to Wildwood Correctional Facility, just north of Kenai. While KNA is actively promoting the plan and has entered into an arrangement with Cornell Companies, a private prison firm, KNA would still have to go through a competitive bidding process to win the contract.
Speaking against the plan were three guards from Wildwood Correction Facility, a state-run prison, and a representative from the guards' union.
Guard Richard Sitbon said there has not been enough research done on private prisons.
"My concern is for public safety," he said. "How safe are they? Private prisons hold inmates, but how effectively?"
He also raised the specter of low-income and dysfunctional families putting a strain on city resources if they move here to be near their incarcerated loved one.
He suggested KNA look at building a casino instead, since it would fit nicely with tourism.
Guard Richard Dominick suggested the city look into raising funds to build a prison and then lease it back to the state to operate, much as the city did when the Kenai Courthouse was built.
He compared the private prison industry to the Health Maintenance Organization, or HMO industry.
"For every dime they do not spend on food or training (for guards) is a dime that goes into their pockets," Dominick said. "They are just out to make a profit."
He asked the council to not only decline to endorse the plan, but come out against it.
Steve Richard, another correction officer, said private prisons have a history of hiring ex-convicts.
"They have numerous employees who rape, exploit and abuse inmates," he said.
He also indicted the industry for what he calls its lack of proper training.
"They have 13 weeks of training, where the Department of Labor recommends 580 hours before unsupervised inmate contact," he said.
Public Safety Employees Association representative George Avila also spoke against the plan.
He said the low-paying jobs, on the order of $9 an hour, would attract low-income, transient families who will put a strain on city resources.
"What is this going to do to our school district?" he asked.
Avila said the $97 a day per inmate cost to the state figure the private prison industry has bandied about is misleading, since it includes prisons in Nome, Bethel and remote southeast. He said the private prisons claim they can do it for $70 a day.
"At Wildwood, it only costs $57 a day, so $70 a day is not cheaper," he said. "And all that profit is sent out of state.
Blaine Gilman, a local attorney representing KNA, described the prison as the "most serious economic development project" to come to the Kenai area in years.
"There is a window of opportunity to be able to take the project from the Greely area and move it to the Kenai Peninsula Borough," he said.
He touted the 250 to 300 permanent jobs the prison would create, as well as the $80 million construction cost.
He said the Alaska Legislature is committed to building a private prison in Alaska.
"And I truly believe the project is in the best interest of the city of Kenai," Gilman said.
He also said he did not think the private prison industry was characterized fairly by the correction officers, and that with KNA's involvement, the organization could offer programs to help reduce the Native recidivism rate.
Gilman said the city of Kenai should endorse the plan, since the economic benefit would be great for the city.
"Well, the economic benefits would be appropriate if they are not overshadowed by other economic costs," Mayor John Williams said.
Frank Pruitt, former commissioner of corrections for the state of Alaska, is a consultant with Cornell Companies assigned to work with KNA, addressed the council as well.
"The Greely project is heading south," Pruitt said. "If not Kenai, then the Mat-Su or somewhere else."
Council member Duane Bannock spoke out in favor of the private prison.
"I asked myself a darned good question, and that is, 'Is Kenai a better place with Wildwood?' and I have to say yes," he said.
Williams said the issue for him is not if a prison is public or private, but where it is built, in or near the city of Kenai.
"Questions remain, such as 'Who takes up the slack of additional services in the city of Kenai,'" he said.
He pointed out the city already struggles on a daily basis to supply water and sewer service to its residents, and Wildwood.
Williams also suggested that prisons were not the kind of economic development the city wants.
"We should lend our efforts to a convention center and hotel," he said.
Council member Jim Bookey said he has worked for economic development all his life, but the points the mayor brought up about taxing the city's resources were valid.
Council member Joe Moore, sensing there were not enough votes to support the idea, but not wanting to "send negative vibes," moved the council table the measure, even though it would not be brought up again before the assembly meets Tuesday.
The motion to table passed 4-1 with Bannock dissenting. Council members Pat Porter and Linda Swarner were absent.
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