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A plan to allow construction of a 1,200-bed public prison in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and expand existing facilities in Bethel, Anchorage and Fairbanks has been introduced by Sen. Lyda Green, a Wasilla Republican.
Senate Bill 65 would provide up to 1,600 new beds, easing overcrowding in Alaska prisons and providing space for 626 Alaska prisoners being held in a private prison in Arizona.
The plan would allow communities to bond to pay the construction costs and then lease the facilities back to the state. It would provide expansions of up to 80 beds for Fairbanks Correctional Center, 120 beds for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Correctional Center in Bethel, and 200 beds for the Anchorage Jail.
Green introduced a similar plan last session that included expansion of 11 correctional facilities throughout the state, including 64 additional beds for Juneau's Lemon Creek Correctional Center and up to 100 beds for Ketchikan Correctional Center.
But building a larger facility in Sutton, about 15 miles northeast of Palmer in Green's district, would cut the cost of housing prisoners and give the bill a better chance at passage in a tight budget year, Green said.
"One of the things that makes prison populations more affordable is being near the center of where the action is, whether it's hospitals, lawyers, courts - transportation is not a major issue for this facility," Green said. "They can do 90 percent of what they need to do right there in Palmer."
Green also stressed the need to bring prisoners back to Alaska from Florence Correctional Center, a private prison in Arizona, so inmates would be closer to their families.
Sen. Kim Elton, a Juneau Democrat, said rehabilitation of prisoners still would be inhibited by shipping inmates from Southeast to other parts of the state where they don't have family support.
"It's very, very important in the rehabilitation process that we do not pluck people out of the community," Elton said.
Juneau's 85,328-square-foot Lemon Creek Correctional Center is running at almost full capacity. Lei Tupou, a special assistant for the Department of Corrections, said the prison has a maximum capacity of 170 inmates and is holding 168 prisoners.
Tupou said when the facility exceeds its capacity it uses a heated tent capable of holding 30 prisoners. Tupou noted the prison has used the tent off and on for about six years.
Green's bill has been referred to the Senate State Affairs Committee and Senate Finance Committee. The bill does not yet have a fiscal note, which projects costs, but Green said it would cost the state significantly less than the prison expansion plan she submitted last year.
"Every time you add another facility you are going to have an exponential rise in costs," Green said.
Elton, however, said he will try to add beds for prisons in Southeast to the bill.
Green's bill faces staunch opposition from proponents of building a private prison in the Kenai Peninsula community of Whittier. A private prison bill, authored by Anchorage Republican Reps. Norm Rokeberg and Mike Hawker, also would allow for prison expansions in Fairbanks, Mat-Su, Bethel and Seward.
Corrections Commissioner Marc Antrim told lawmakers at a House-Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that the department is reviewing private and public prison proposals to determine the costs to the state.
Gov. Frank Murkowski, during his campaign, said he would oppose private prison legislation.
Frank Prewitt, a lobbyist for the private prison firm Cornell Companies, said a private company can build and run a private prison for about 20 percent to 25 percent less than a public facility.
He noted it costs about $114 a day to house one prisoner in Alaska, compared to the national average of $61 a day. That higher number could be reduced significantly by paying private-prison correctional officers less that state correctional officers, said Prewitt, a former state corrections department commissioner.
He added that prisoners with longer sentences can be shipped back to facilities near their home towns at the end of their sentences regardless of whether they are sent to a public prison in Sutton or a private one in Whittier.
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at email@example.com.