A House committee on Tuesday looked at a plan to build one large private prison in Whittier, while a Senate committee took up a bill to expand state-run prisons around the state.
Frank Prewitt, a consultant for Cornell Companies, said that firm's proposal for a 1,200-bed private prison in Whittier would cost $44 a day less than a Knowles' administration plan to expand existing prisons and jails. The Knowles proposal does not include Juneau's Lemon Creek Correctional Center.
"One approach is cost-intensive, the other approach is cost-effective," Prewitt told the House State Affairs Committee.
Administration officials said they're not sure Prewitt used the right variables in comparing state and private proposals, but they could not be certain without further analyzing his numbers.
But Margot Knuth of the state Department of Corrections said a Whittier prison won't solve the need for beds near offenders' communities. That need is especially critical for those who haven't been sentenced and need to make court appearances, Knuth told the Senate State Affairs Committee on Tuesday afternoon.
Moving people from overcrowded jails in outlying communities to prison beds in Anchorage, then back out again for a court hearing, creates significant logistical problems, Knuth said.
"There comes a point that we've passed already where that simply isn't cost-effective," she said.
The House State Affairs Committee was looking at House Bill 498, which calls for the state to enter into a 25-year contract with the city of Whittier to provide prison space. The city, in turn, would contract with Cornell to build and operate the prison.
The bill states that the Legislature intends to spend no more than $89 to $91 a day, or 18-20 percent less than average state rate, to house prisoners at Whittier.
That language is not binding, Knuth said.
Marvin Wiebe, senior vice president for governmental affairs at Cornell Companies, said the firm can do the job for less than the state partly by providing less space for prisoners and paying employees less.
Also, it's more economical to put 1,200 prisoners in one place than to add space to prisons around the state, Wiebe said.
Compensation, including benefits, will total $36,000 for a beginning correctional officer with no experience, Wiebe said.
The state, by contrast, pays its beginning correctional officers about $48,400 with benefits, said Bruce Richards, a special assistant in the Corrections Department.
This is the third time the Legislature has considered a private prison. It approved previous proposals for private prisons in Delta Junction and then in Kenai, but both fell apart in the face of community opposition.
Whittier Mayor Ben Butler assured the House committee last week that won't happen in his town. The community is desperate for economic development and most of its 192 residents have signed a petition supporting the idea, he said.
The Senate State Affairs Committee took its first look Tuesday at an alternative proposal, Senate Bill 336. The Knowles administration bill calls for floating a $117 million bond to add 563 beds to prisons in Palmer, Bethel, Fairbanks and Seward and design future prison expansions.
The expansion would be paid for through a type of bond issue called certificates of participation.
The bill also calls for the state to give $4 million matching grants to communities that run small jails in need of repair, expansion or replacement.
People in communities that would see new prison beds through the Knowles' bill generally spoke in support of it.
"I think it's a wise use of state funds," said Steve Sweet of Fairbanks. "I think it's important for family members to be close to inmates for visitation rights."