Whittier selects prison promoter

The seeds of Alaska’s first private prison may have found fertile soil in the economically barren city of Whittier.

On Dec. 21, a 6-0 vote by Whittier’s city council selected Cornell Cos., based in Houston to plan, promote, design, construct and operate a minimum 800-bed medium security correctional facility. Not selected was Corrections Corp. of America, which operates a facility in Florence, Ariz., where about 800 Alaska prisoners are incarcerated because of a shortage of bed space in Alaska prisons.

Whittier’s interest in a private prison came after 73 percent of Kenai Peninsula Borough voters gave the Cornell-led project the cold shoulder Oct. 2.

"We thought that was about as strange as it could be," Whittier Mayor Ben Butler said. "So we thought Whittier should give it a try, and we started the process."

He said Whittier views the prison as a way to save a "dying community."

"We are not trying to debate the philosophical reasons between a private- and a state-operated prison," Butler said. "What we’re trying to do is get some economic development going in this town."

Paul Doucette, Cornell’s public relations spokesperson in Houston, said Cornell stood ready to work with Whittier. He described the project as a 1,200-bed medium security prison, larger than the 800-bed facility approved by the Whittier council.

Despite voting for the partnership with Cornell, Whittier city council member Arlen Arneson doesn’t support the project.

"The majority of (Whittier) people won’t ’fess up to it, but 60 to 70 percent of them are against the prison, too," he said. "The simple reason is that the ordinance was written to exclude a public vote. ... There’s no public vote. Not even an advisory vote."

Arneson also voiced concern over lack of a feasibility study.

However, Butler said, "We don’t have any problems with thinking the prison isn’t feasible. The contractor will do a site evaluation and that will be a feasibility study."

In 1998, the Legislature authorized the creation of a private prison by the city of Delta Junction at abandoned U.S. Army facilities at Fort Greely. Corrections Group North, formed by Cornell and Weimar Investments, worked with Delta Junction on that project. Pete Hallgren, the executive director of Delta Junction’s department of economic development and the city administrator, said a $75,000 feasibility study "indicated that there wasn’t anywhere near enough money appropriated under the enabling legislation to make it financially feasible."

Constructing the private prison was not pursued, lawsuits were filed, and Hallgren said, "We came out of the project defending against a lawsuit by the proposed prison operator. We ended up settling the case for $1.1 million."

Delta Junction has paid $100,000. The remaining $1 million is due July 1.

"It’s more money than we’ve got," Hallgren said.

Jeff Sinz, finance director of the Kenai Peninsula Borough, said the borough invested $75,000 in the project that was ultimately rejected by voters.

Butler said Whittier had spent little on the proposed prison.

"And we have no intentions of really spending on this at all," he said.

Nome, whose lobbyist, Joe Hayes, also lobbies for Cornell, recently gave brief consideration to constructing and operating a private prison.

"It was one of 20 different items that were covered at a legislative priority meeting, but there wasn’t an interest in following up on it," said Marguerite Lariviere, assistant to the city manager.

Wrangell and the Ketchikan Gateway Borough are two other areas considering the project. Gary Paxton, interim manager for the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, said the Alaska Department of Corrections has been invited to meet with borough officials Jan. 21 to address the advantages and disadvantages of a prison in Ketchikan, project costs and the need for legislative approval.

"There are enough serious questions that need to be asked of the department that our assembly needs to have them come talk to us," Paxton said.

According to Corrections Commissioner Margaret Pugh, the department has received no such contact from Whittier. Butler has, however, contacted people from Kenai "just to see how it went before and to know what to expect."

"There’s no sense in reinventing the wheel," he said.

On Jan. 4, Sen. Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, pre-filed legislation to authorize the Corrections Department to enter into agreements for new or expanded correctional facilities in the Fairbanks North Star Borough, Matanuska-Susitna Borough, the city and borough of Juneau, Bethel, Ketchikan Gateway Borough, Seward and the Kenai Peninsula Borough. The plan, according to Pugh, is similar to one proposed by Gov. Tony Knowles several years ago.

Butler said the city is working with Anchorage legislators to prepare legislation needed to authorize the Corrections Department to work with Whittier.

"All Whittier is trying to do is keep from dying," Butler said. "It would be nice if the city of Whittier could direct its own future."

01/13/2002 - 8:00pm