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Legislature’s rejection of for-profit prisons keeps Alaskans safe

  • Author: Veri di Suvero
    | Opinion
  • Updated: June 15
  • Published June 15

Spring Creek Correctional Center, Seward, Alaska, Aug. 12, 2016. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

After Gov. Mike Dunleavy took office, private for-profit prison and health care corporations flooded the state with business proposals. Gov. Dunleavy welcomed them, even though Alaska knows from past experience that private prisons are “crime universities” that bring dangerous criminal activity home. Fortunately, in an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote, the Legislature has blocked the private prison proposals, helping protect Alaska from Outside organized crime.

It’s no mystery how private, for-profit prisons became a central goal of Gov. Dunleavy’s budget. His Outside budget director, Donna Arduin, has a long history of working closely with private prison corporations like the GEO Group. Although Arduin has gone so far as to allocate Alaska resources to benefit GEO Group, that ethical conflict doesn’t seem to bother the governor’s office.

On Feb. 4, Alaska Public Interest Research Group, or AKPIRG, under the authority of the Alaska Public Records Act, requested written records between Arduin and representatives of any divisions and subsidiaries of the GEO Group and Correct Care. To date, we have received no response from Arduin. And there have been other serious failures of accountability in the governor’s office. Transparency is the mark of an honest democracy that benefits all of its constituents. It should not be up to other regulatory bodies to babysit the governor’s office.

Given these conflicts, it is fortunate that state appropriations are made by the Legislature. The governor and Arduin attempted to fund for-profit Outside prisons, and on June 13, the Legislature rejected those attempts, voting 29-6 against funding for Outside prisons as part of the capital budget (Amendment 10). One of the few legislators who voted in favor of Outside for-profit prisons was Rep. Lance Pruitt.

Rep. Pruitt is the State House minority leader whose wife, Mary Ann Pruitt, has a lucrative job as the governor’s acting communications director. Rep. Pruitt, perhaps not coincidentally, has transformed into a puppet for the administration, at times taking positions diametrically opposed to those he seemed to hold just one year ago.

During floor debate on this budget amendment, Rep. Tammie Wilson referred to Alaskans who had been in Outside prisons, saying she wasn’t sure it was financially smart to send prisoners Outside, especially given the long-term cost by way of increased recidivism rates. Rep. Wilson is right — we don’t save any money by sending Alaskans to the Lower 48 where they learn to be better criminals and worse neighbors.

AKPIRG published an op-ed with Kevin McGee of the Anchorage NAACP discussing Arduin’s connection to private prisons earlier this year. Since then, we have received several letters from inmates describing conditions in private prisons. One current Alaska inmate described the conditions in Arizona and Colorado private prisons, writing: “in Arizona, facilities were built on fields that were infested with Valley Fever (coccidioidomycosis) fungus spores.” In Colorado, prisoners drank fracking-contaminated water. “Life,” he wrote, “was akin to living in a lawless world ... prisoners died from drugs, assaults and medical neglect. Family visits were extremely costly.” The letter ends by saying, “as a senior citizen, I do not want to go back (to a private prison). Some prisoners bring these bad mindsets back to the Alaska prison system.”

In its recent vote, the Alaska House voted overwhelmingly to protect Alaskans. AKPIRG congratulates those who voted in favor of keeping communities together and making the best decisions for the public, rather than their own private interests.

AKPIRG advocates for transparency in government, civic engagement, consumers and economic fairness. We continue to believe that the long history of corruption with private, for-profit prisons must be kept out of Alaska. As long as the Dunleavy administration advocates for this dangerous practice, the Legislature must continue to stand up for accountability and public safety.

Veri di Suvero is the executive director of the Alaska Public Interest Research Group. They live in Anchorage.

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