Private prison plan panned, praised

Posted: Friday, December 15, 2000

What price a prison?

Looking for the answer are borough residents and officials, individuals with and without experience in the corrections industry, and others who believe they will either benefit or be at risk if an 800- to 1,000-bed medium-security privately run prison is built within the Kenai Peninsula Borough.

Following the borough assembly's unanimous assent Tuesday night, Borough Mayor Dale Bagley is preparing to solicit plans from parties interested in building and operating a private prison in the borough.

In the background, a ticking clock counts the minutes until the Alaska Legislature convenes in January. Development of a state-approved prison facility in the former military installation at Fort Greeley, near Delta Junction, is looking doubtful, and competition to claim the project for another Alaska location may be fierce.

"Time is of the essence," said Frank Pruitt, former commissioner of Alaska's Department of Corrections. "The experience with Delta is that the early bird gets the worm."

Pruitt represents Cornell Corrections, a private prison company interested in operating a Kenai facility in partnership with Kenai Natives Association.

Dollars and cents weigh heavily on the side of those favoring development of the prison. A memo from Borough Mayor Dale Bagley to assembly president Tim Navarre said construction of the prison is estimated to cost $80 million and would result in the creation of approximately 250 to 300 permanent full-time jobs in the borough.

"This (proposed prison) is a good idea," said Randy Daly, a Kenai businessman, who referred to prisoners as a "renewable resource."

According to Daly, the prison's 12-month economy would "protect the quality of life" of borough residents by bringing new families into the community and providing long-term employment.

That reference fit well with borough assembly member Bill Popp's philosophy.

"I am a believer of doing what's necessary for changing our three-leg economy -- oil, tourism and fishing -- to four legs," Popp said.

Scott McLain, of Soldotna, also saw value in expanding the borough's economic base.

"(The borough) relies almost totally on the oil industry for economic stability," McLain said. "(The proposed prison) is an ideal situation for us."

Michael Slezak, chief operating officer for KNA, said the economic gain from the prison couldn't be equaled by "one, three or five other industries."

And Joe Malatesta, of Clam Gulch, who claimed that the facility would have a $30 million annual budget, called the plan a "no-brainer."

"It would give such a great boost to the community," he said.

Nikiski resident Merrill McGahan predicted the estimated 300 full-time prison jobs were just the tip of the iceberg.

"I'm in favor of the prison," McGahan said. "The 300 jobs will multiply. This isn't seasonal. This will be here forever. It's good for everybody."

On the flip side of the coin, voices opposing the project argue that the risks of a privately run prison carry a high price tag. Their data states that private prisons do not save money, but are, in fact, costlier than state-operated prisons. They also argue strongly that private prisons are plagued with a number of flaws, including escapes, riots, staff assaults of inmates and the corruption of public officials.

Claiming he wasn't for or against the project, Chuck Phillips, of Kenai, said it was important for the borough to proceed cautiously and suggested including public involvement through a citizens advisory committee.

"(The borough has) looked at the dollars," said Phillips, a retiree from Oregon's Department of Correc-tions, with 28 years experience. "But they haven't looked that long at the consequences."

Phillips was referring to his home state's experience of pulling inmates "out of a private prison in New Mexico because they were abused so bad."

Richard Dominick, a correctional officer at Wildwood Correctional Complex with 13 years of experience, said he had "great concerns."

"Privately run prisons mirror HMOs," Dominick said. "Every-thing that isn't spent on food, training or wages is dollars in (the prison's) pocket."

Debra Blatchford, of Kasilof, questioned the level of planning going into the project and asked specifically about consideration being given to training and building design.

"I would like to see a planning committee," she said. "(The prison) could be great for our future, but it could be our downfall."

Ronald Lee, a state correctional officer who lives in Nikiski, said the estimated 300 jobs for 1,000 inmates was below required staffing minimums. He referred to Seward's Spring Creek Correctional Center, with more than 500 inmates and more than 200 staff.

Rick Van Hatten, president of the Correctional Officer Bargaining Unit for the Public Safety Employees Association and a correctional officer at Wildwood since 1985, has assembled data addressing the shortcomings of private prisons in general and Cornell Corrections specifically, including incidents at other Cornell facilities in Alaska, California, Georgia, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Utah.

"Private prisons are not accountable to the public," Van Hatten said. "They're accountable to their stockholders."

Pete Butler, of Kenai, a 20-year veteran of Wildwood, also questioned the value of the proposed prison.

"What are you willing to pay for security and well-being?" he asked. "I've booked (convicts) in, and I've booked them out. And I don't want to see them anymore.

"You build a 1,000-bed prison and there will be 10 times more offenders on the street." said Butler, referring to the possibility of released offenders relocating to the community where they were incarcerated. They are going to be here. They'll be in the community.

"How much are you willing to spend for your own well-being?" he asked again.

Although the borough assembly decided Tuesday to take another step in exploring development of the prison, assembly members say they are doing so cautiously and will look for more feedback from the public.

Milli Martin, assembly member from the Homer area, said she was concerned with having to make a quick decision.

"But I think there will be ample opportunities for public input as we go along," she said.

Jack Brown, Nikiski assembly member, said he favored the idea of a citizen advisory board.

Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, urged the borough assembly to keep peninsula residents involved in the process.

"You've got a lot of public pressure to get through before this comes to the Legislature," he said.

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