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Private prison to open in 2004

Texas company to operate facility

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Three-and-a-half years after it was caught in a legal stalemate, the state's first privately owned prison has won approval and will open in Clearfield County late next year to at least 900 federal prisoners, officials announced yesterday.

For state Attorney General Mike Fisher, the federal contract with Cornell Companies Inc. comes after the federal Bureau of Prisons answered his objections over whether corrections giant Cornell had a legal right to hold prisoners and, potentially, use deadly force in Pennsylvania.

The agreement, filed with Commonwealth Court, says that the Bureau of Prisons, which legally can hold prisoners and use deadly force to capture them, grants that right to Cornell. That, Fisher said, would "sort of deputize" Cornell.

The pact also says that Texas-based Cornell will draw up plans to handle emergencies, have at least two disturbance control teams and pay state and local government for help in handling uprisings or capturing escapees.

For Clearfield County's economically ailing Moshannon Valley, the agreement also means that Cornell can make good on its promise of 500 construction jobs and another 346 permanent prison jobs. U.S. Rep. John Peterson, R-Venango County, said the jobs should pay around $35,000 annually, an estimate Cornell says could be low.

"It's a sad time when corrections jobs are the sunny side of an area's economy," Fisher told reporters yesterday in a telephone press conference with Peterson and U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa. "But that's the reality we face in many rural parts of Pennsylvania."

"It's a great shot in the arm of quality jobs," said Santorum, credited with pressuring the Bureau of Prisons and helping the plan out of what Peterson termed "a legal quagmire."

In 1999, Cornell officials whipped up support in the Moshannon Valley with promises of jobs and a tax windfall.

Cornell, which agreed to take no maximum security prisoners at Moshannon Valley, originally signed to take 350 minimum security male inmates, 300 women of various security grades and 350 minimum and medium security teenage boys.

Company spokesman Paul Doucette said last night that he knows of no change in that mix.

The contract with Cornell, operator of nine other prisons, guarantees the Moshannon Valley facility for three years with options for seven, one-year renewals. But Doucette said that's no suggestion that the facility could be short-lived.

"The Bureau of Prisons has never gone to the expense of a prison and not used it for its useful life," he said.

Tom Gibb can be reached at tgibb@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1601.

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