Alaska's 800 inmates doing time in a private prison in Arizona will be moving to another private prison in Colorado by the end of the year.
There they will stay for three years until Alaska finishes building its own lockup in Mat-Su to finally accommodate the state's long-standing overflow.
The Alaska Department of Corrections is switching its $20 million-a-year private prison contract from the company that has held it for 15 years, the Corrections Corp. of America, to Cornell Companies, a Texas-based company the department already uses to run halfway houses in Alaska.
The prisoners will leave the Red Rock Correctional Center in Eloy, Ariz., for the Hudson Correctional Facility in Hudson, Colo., about 30 miles northeast of Denver, sometime before Christmas, said Alaska Corrections Commissioner Joe Schmidt.
The state will save about $6 a day per prisoner from the switch, the commissioner said, for a total of approximately $1.75 million a year. The state now pays $65 per day per prisoner at Red Rock; it will be paying $59 per day per prisoner at Hudson.
Schmidt said the Hudson prison won over other bids because of price but also because its programs will mimic programs planned for the new Goose Creek prison being built in Mat-Su, which is expected to be ready to house all of Alaska's out-of-state prisoners by 2012.
The inmates will be transported by air but for security purposes Schmidt wouldn't say exactly when. It will happen in stages, with each $35,000 flight carrying 120 prisoners, he said.
The prison contract went out to bid in the spring and the finalists included Corrections Corp. and Cornell as well as the states of Virginia and Minnesota. Schmidt thought that with the economy in a slump, it was a good time to negotiate for a new price.
The state already has a contract with Cornell for six halfway houses, including ones in Bethel, Nome and Anchorage. But Cornell in recent years has also been on the public radar for an inadvertent role in the federal corruption charges against Alaska politicians. A federal informant used Cornell's name in a bribery scheme without the company's knowledge, the Justice Department has said.
Charles Seigel, spokesman for Cornell, said the 1,250-bed Hudson prison is still under construction but scheduled to be completed in the next few months. He called it "modern" and "well designed." He said current company plans are to house only Alaska prisoners there but the facility is designed in such a way that it can easily separate prison populations.
Both Cornell and CCA are big players and national rivals in the multi-billion-dollar private-prison industry.
Alaska Corrections deputy director of institutions Bryan Brandenburg said prisoners will get more services than currently offered at the Arizona penitentiary. That's why Cornell got the contract, he said. The services will include substance abuse programs, anger-management classes, GED classes, parenting classes, and vocational and technical training. It will also have a re-entry unit that will help prisoners with the transition back to society.
But some are skeptical.
"They say all this stuff all the time because they want the public to feel like their dollars are doing something," said Brenda Watkinson, whose husband is serving a life sentence at the Arizona facility. "They started programs like that at Red Rock and dropped them to save money."
Watkinson said her husband and other prisoners are quietly optimistic the new prison will be better. Maybe at the new prison the food won't be so intolerable, the rules will be more consistent, the guards won't be so rotten to the inmates, or there will be more activities, she said.
Watkinson, a day care worker, knows she and her husband aren't going to get sympathy from the public. She married Richard Watkinson eight years ago while he was at Spring Creek, beginning his life sentence for the 1995 murder of his parents when he was 16. But still, she broke into tears at the thought of having to move again to be near him.
About half a dozen families that currently live around the Arizona prison will have to relocate, she said. And in this economy, Watkinson doesn't know how she's going to sell her house, or find a new job, or make new friends. "I've moved so many times to be with him," she said. "It really takes a toll on families."
The prisoners were going to be moved from Arizona either way, the commissioner said. That's because Corrections Corp. of America did not re-bid the Red Rock facility; instead, it offered a bid for another of its prisons in Minnesota.
Find Megan Holland online at adn.com/contact/mholland or call 257-4343.
By MEGAN HOLLAND