Alaska May Scrap Finished Prison

JUNEAU, Alaska — Alaska’s new medium-security Goose Creek Correctional Center, scheduled to open next year, may be scrapped.

Originally built to save the state money in transferring inmates to facilities in other states, Alaska lawmakers are now concerned about the $71 million it will take annually to operate the facility, which is 3 1/2 times the cost Alaska now pays to house inmates to a private prison in Colorado.

Lawmakers are also raising concerns about the cost of utilities and road improvement for the prison, including the construction of a water treatment plant solely for the facility.

Some lawmakers have requested an audit of the projected operations budget. Others say the prison, with a capacity of 1,536 inmates scheduled to open in June 2012, should be left vacant or turned over to the private sector.

Corrections officials say they have kept the state legislature informed of the prison’s costs and operating fees as construction progressed, and that the prison is within budget.

The Senate Corrections Subcommittee recently recommended that the Department of Corrections not receive $3.6 million in 2012 to begin preliminary operations of the prison, though the same committee in the House has allocated the money, leaving next year’s funding in the air.

The state has two other medium security prisons — one in Palmer and another near Kenai — but Goose Creek would be Alaska’s largest and would create 347 jobs.

According to documents released by the DOC, the prison’s per-bed cost is under the limit mandated by the legislature when it authorized the prison.

Even if the facility never opens, it will still cost the state $22.5 million per year to heat and secure the building and cover lease payments. The state would also have to continue paying to transport and house its prisoners in Colorado.

The prison’s costs include yearly $17.8 million payments on bond debt service for 22 years.

The site on which Goose Creek was built also came with a hefty price tag. Tests showed the groundwater near the site was contaminated with arsenic and salt, and a $23 million water treatment plant had to be built to supply the facility.

Some lawmakers are proposing the prison be privatized, saying privatization could save the state an estimated $6.5 million.

Corrections officials say if Goose Creek does not open, Alaska’s prisons would become overcrowded, even if it continues sending inmates to Colorado.

Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, believes opening the prison is the most viable option, but advocates a shift in state focus away from prison construction and toward rehabilitation and substance abuse treatment programs.