My Turn: What Mr. Prewitt didn't bother to mention

Posted: Thursday, January 24, 2002

Frank Prewitt neglected to list his full credentials in his bio following his Jan. 22 article in the Empire. If a used car salesman did what Frank Prewitt just did, he would be fired for his lack of ethics. Yes, Cornell salesman Frank Prewitt, the "former commissioner for the Department of Corrections" who was fired from that post by Gov. Walter Hickel, neglected to say that he is much more than a former commissioner and "practicing attorney" in Anchorage. Mr. Prewitt is a full-time employee of one of the largest campaign contributors in Alaska, Cornell Corrections.

Mr. Prewitt's attack on SB 231 is nothing short of a sales pitch. A poor one at that, riddled with half-truths. The fact is that every study conducted by independent auditors has demonstrated that prison costs are no less with private operators than with publicly managed prisons and are in many cases more costly. Utah recently found that out, and canceled a contract with Cornell to build and operate a private prison in their state. Cornell promptly sued, settling for $1.5 million.

The cost figures for construction and operation of a private prison in Whittier have not even been calculated. However, should the costs be similar to those of Delta, where the land and much of the facility were free, the operation will require near minimum-wage employees to keep it profitable.

Mr. Prewitt is fond of quoting statewide housing costs for Alaska prisoners, but he neglects to point out that the housing cost in several facilities, to include Palmer Correctional Center, Wildwood Correctional Center and Point MacKenzie are all well below what he would have us pay. He further fails to point out the increased risk to the public from poorly paid and poorly trained "guards" who would work in these facilities. The private sector has an embarrassing record for both staff and inmate retention. What that means to your family is that poorly paid staff leave private prisons almost as fast as the inmates escape.

Mr. Prewitt fails to point out that his "economy of scale" often relies on assistance from the professionals in the public sector. Training, emergency response, and day-to-day operations from nearby publicly operated facilities were all relied upon by Mr. Prewitt in his unsuccessful bid to place a private prison in Kenai. Now he again factors in the same "economy of scale" in Whittier, even though Whittier has no public facility nearby.

The fact is that Whittier is so ill-suited for any prison, not just a private one, that had the private sector been able to convince a suitable community, they would be laughing in Whittier's face. However, like a drunk looking for a date, Whittier looks better the later it gets.

Whittier fails to meet the needs of any correctional facility with its lack of courts, and medical and transportation challenges. Just the garbage collection alone will increase trips to the Anchorage landfill tenfold. The tunnel will by necessity require 24-hour-per-day operation seven days a week. Prisoners in this isolated community will outnumber the residents by five to one. All staff would have to commute about 50 miles through the longest, (part-time) tunnel in North America. Inmate transports, medical emergencies and court appearances will all be subject to the tunnel's schedule. Why does this not bother Mr. Prewitt? Because Frank knows that the state will be stuck with this location, and will be forced to pay the difference, pushing costs well over previous estimates.

Contracts of this nature are renegotiated every day. Many of these costs will not be reflected in Cornell's bid to manage a private prison. The state will be expected, and will be forced by necessity, to pick up the tab. However, other costs will be painfully clear when the Department of Corrections goes to the Legislature with emergency funding requests resulting in their forced relationship with Cornell. The Legislature will then have two choices. Fund Cornell or close less expensive, better managed and safer publicly operated facilities.

Bill Rogers of Wasilla is a retired correctional officer, full-time RV salesman and part-time employee/volunteer of The Public Safety Employees Association.

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