An 11-member panel is exploring the possibility of relocating Utah’s biggest prison. UPR’s Matt Jensen spoke with members of the prison relocation board and has this story.
Members of PRADA – the Prison Relocation and Development Authority – are discussing what it would take to move a prison. And, like any big undertaking, they say the devil’s in the details.
"It’s a many-headed monster," says Lane Summerhays, chairman for the board overseeing the prison study.
The original Draper penitentiary, located near Point of the Mountain, was built in 1951. Summerhays says the prison is highly inefficient and some say it’s blocking the way for potential business growth.
"When the prison moved out there, that was in the middle of nowhere and now it’s right in the sweet spot between Salt Lake County and Utah County," he said.
The relocation board is looking at the issue from multiple angles including available land, impacts to jobs and the future of corrections in the United States. Just last week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder alluded to major reform to the country’s justice system, saying too many Americans are in prisons for too long. Summerhays says the board is open to new ideas on incarceration. He wants to see changes in how drug users are punished. He says, for example, it doesn’t make sense to house drug addicts with maximum security inmates.
"The prison right now has a facility for drug offenders," he said. "And you don’t need the same kind of security for somebody’s who’s been addicted to drugs and who’s done some stupid things. They just don’t need to be in the same kind of environment that Point of the Mountain creates."
The panel says one of the biggest questions in the relocation debate is whether such a move makes economic sense. Summerhays says the board needs to determine if future tax revenue from new business development at the Draper site is worth the cost of building a new prison.
Last year, there were approximately 6,800 state inmates in Utah housed among the Draper site, at a second prison in Sanpete County and at county jails around Utah. According to a recent report, around 23 percent of inmates were housed in county jails last year, something board member Leland Pollock says equals big savings for tax payers.
“We currently house 1,600 state inmates (and) we are doing an excellent job," he said.
Pollock is chairman for the Utah Association of Counties’ Joint Jail Committee. Twenty counties participate in the joint jail program and receive around $50 per inmate per day. Pollock says it’s cheaper and more effective to rehabilitate inmates in individual counties than it is at large prisons.
“It’s a huge savings to the state of Utah and it hasn’t been addressed properly," he added. "The tax payers do not know how well the counties are doing and how much it’s saving the average state taxpayer.”
By using county jails, the report shows, the state has been able to avoid building additional prisons. But even with the extra capacity from county jails, it’s estimated both prisons and the jails will reach capacity in about five years if current growth and incarceration trends keep up. Pollock says part of the answer is an enhanced county jail system and a new second, smaller prison.
“Instead of building a big mega-prison, and spending almost $1 billion, cut it down and spend a third of that and still build your prison," says Pollock. "Build it right so it can rehab the inmates. But also, use this tremendous county system.”
Summerhays says it also makes sense to expand the Gunnison prison in Sanpete County.
"We have a facility in Gunnison that is pretty much a state-of-the-art facility," he said. "So I think any ultimate solution would be some expansion of the Gunnison facility."
So the question remains: What will happen to the prison at the Point of the Mountain? Summerhays says parts of the Draper campus are so old and inefficient, it would cost millions in upgrades just to get the facility up to date. The board is looking at what the ground underneath is worth and how much tax revenue and job growth new businesses there could create.
"If the property – and we don’t know yet – but if the property comes back showing the value that is being estimated, it probably is in the best interest to the state of Utah to move that facility," he said.
But with so much talk about bigger business and more jobs in Draper, Pollock says what matters most in this conversation is what’s best for Utah’s inmates. Incarceration costs, he explained, go up significantly when former inmates recidivate – meaning they up behind bars again.
“We’re not talking about cattle, we’re talking about human beings,” he said. “This is not about the property. This is about taking care of the inmates first. When we do this whole thing; when we do this move, it has to be the best thing for the inmates and getting them rehabbed correctly. It has to be right.”
Summerhays says it’s too early to say where any new prison would be constructed. Past discussions have looked at areas in Tooele and Salt Lake counties.
The prison relocation board meets every other week in Salt Lake County and the public is invited to sit in. The state legislature originally requested a preliminary report from the group for the 2014 general session, but Summerhays says much more time will be needed to sort through so many questions. With Utah Public Radio News, I’m Matt Jensen.