The new commissioner of the Department of Corrections says a bill that includes a big state-run prison in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough would be cheaper for the state than a competing plan for a private prison in Whittier.
"It's partially location, partially design, probably partially staffing," Marc Antrim said in an interview after his presentation to the Senate State Affairs Committee.
But Frank Prewitt, a former corrections commissioner working for Cornell Companies, a Houston, Texas-based private prison firm pushing the Whittier project, said the state's cost figures were wrong.
"I'm absolutely convinced that the private sector can deliver a comparable level of services at roughly 15 percent less," Prewitt told the Senate panel.
Thursday's Senate hearing was on a bill by Wasilla Republican Sen. Lyda Green calling for a 1,200-bed, mostly medium-security prison to be built next to the existing prison outside Sutton. It would be twice the size of Alaska's largest prison, the Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward. That's the state's maximum-security lockup.
The competing plan, sponsored by Anchorage Republican Reps. Mike Hawker and Norm Rokeberg, authorizes a contract with a 1,200-bed private prison in Whittier.
The Whittier and Mat-Su bills include authorization for expansion of regional facilities in Fairbanks and Bethel. The Whittier bill also would expand Spring Creek, while the Mat-Su bill would use federal funds to add space for 200 federal prisoners in Anchorage.
Murkowski supports the Mat-Su bill, his corrections commissioner said. Murkowski campaigned against private prisons. Antrim said Thursday it is also his preference.
The Mat-Su bill calls for local governments to bond for the construction of the various facilities, estimated to cost $162 million altogether. The state then would pay the municipalities for operation.
The cost to the state, once all the new beds are on line, would be about $41 million a year, according to the Corrections Department. But the state would save an estimated $25 million a year by no longer sending Alaska inmates to a private prison in Arizona.
That savings is based on an estimate of 1,000 Alaska prisoners in Arizona by the time the new prison is built. There are now about 650 Alaskans incarcerated there, and the state's inmate population is growing.
The state's cost under the Mat-Su bill would be $110.39 per prisoner each day, Antrim said. The cost of the Whittier private prison bill would be $127.25 a day, he said.
Balderdash, said Prewitt. He said that the state has miscalculated and the Whittier prison would cost much less.
Wrangell Republican Sen. Robin Taylor, chairman of the committee, decided not to move the Mat-Su prison bill Thursday so the panel could collect more information.
Private-prison proposals have won favor in the Legislature in the past, but have been doomed by local opposition in South Anchorage, Delta Junction and Kenai.
A bill for a Whittier private prison passed in the state House last year but died in the Senate.