Gov. Tony Knowles has signed a bill allowing the state to lease private prison space on the Kenai Peninsula.
House Bill 149 authorizes the Department of Corrections to enter into a lease agreement with the Kenai Peninsula Borough for an 800-bed, medium-security private prison. The borough has entered into a partnership with Cornell Corrections Group and several associated companies to design, build and operate the prison.
The Legislature approved the measure over objections from some lawmakers who said it amounted to a sole-source contract with the borough, and that the borough had chosen its partner through a process that did not require the winning proposal to be the best deal for the state.
Spokesman Bob King said the governor shared those concerns, but his signature does not obligate the state to sign a contract.
"The bill states that the Department of Corrections may enter into an agreement, and the department has clearly stated that any such agreement has to describe how to maximize the purchasing power of public funds," King said.
Since 1995, the state has housed up to 800 prisoners at a private prison in Arizona at an annual cost of nearly $19 million. Supporters of the private prison say it's important to bring Alaska prisoners home, even though it could cost an additional $8 million a year.
One supporter, Sen. Jerry Ward, an Anchorage Republican, has said current rehabilitation methods are not working for Alaska Natives, especially those in Arizona. The new law calls for the prison operator to provide culturally relevant counseling services to Alaska Natives.
Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dale Bagley said many hurdles remain before the walls and fences go up. The borough still has to conduct a feasibility study and some residents are pushing for a vote that could block the project. The borough must negotiate the contract with the state, as well as contracts for leasing or buying the land and designing, building and operating the prison.