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Prison Relocation: No News Is Good News...but Good News is Even Better!

28 October 2014 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

Many folks who turned out for the Prison Relocation Commission's most recent meeting on October 22 were likely disappointed, because the big news that they were hoping for never came. 

As it has done many times already this year, the Prison Relocation Commission met publicly (audio and materials here) to update interested Utahns about its progress...but NOT about the actual, eventual, decided location of the new prison! 

The commission's site selection committee reported that the list of "best prospect" sites continues to narrow, as commission members work with master design consultant MGT of America to evaluate potential locations for the new Utah State Prison, currently located in Draper. They are using criteria decided at the last full Commission meeting, but they are NOT saying exactly WHICH top sites are most likely to meet all those criteria. 

Of course, there's a lot of speculation about the four (unidentified) sites the Commission says look most promising - Utah Policy reported on the murmurs, for example. PRC House Chair Rep. Brad Wilson told the public on Oct. 22 that "some of the news is correct, and some of the news is wildly wrong" - but he was careful to not reveal WHICH news was which! 

The next Prison Relocation Commission meeting is scheduled for Monday, December 15, at 9:00 a.m., though, and there's a good chance the public will know then which locations the Commission plans to recommend to the 2015 Legislature. 

 If you were waiting to find out where the new prison would be located, and you felt disappointed that no such secrets have yet been revealed, don't forget that there was a LOT of good news shared at the most recent PRC meeting. We encourage you to listen to the audio recording of the meeting and decide for yourself, but here is the ACLU of Utah's take on the "good news" from the Prison Relocation Commission in October: 

FIRST - Legislators and the public seem to understand that serious criminal justice reform is absolutely critical to keeping the cost of the new prison down. Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice Director Ron Gordon presented to the PRC a series of recommendations that CCJJ is considering, which, when taken together, could avert up to 97% of the future prison population growth predicted by MGT of America. The ACLU of Utah has expressed some concern that the recommendations don't sufficiently address increasing lengths of stay - one of the top drivers of Utah's continued prison population growth - but we're still hopeful that the recommendations can accomplish a lot of good.

Screen Shot 2014-10-30 at 7.17.11 AMThis matters - a LOT - because effective criminal justice reform could mean the difference between simply REPLACING the Utah State Prison at Draper...and building a facility that is 1.6-times the size of the current facility. As you can see from the accompanying graphics, building 2,700 new prison beds ain't cheap. The Prison Relocation Commission is literally banking on the CCJJ reforms being successful - selling a $500-million facility to the public and its elected representatives is MUCH easier than selling them a $1.1-BILLION project!Screen Shot 2014-10-30 at 7.17.32 AM

SECOND - the Utah State Prison almost certainly will remain PUBLICLY-OPERATED. The possibility of prison privatization has never been officially taken off the table as part of the relocation conversation. However, the prospect has steadily faded over the past six months. House Chair Rep. Wilson asserted during his report on the Finance Committee's work that commissioners had spent little to no time considering private operation of the Utah State Prison. 

THIRD - the prison will also remain PUBLICLY-FINANCED and PUBLICLY-OWNED. The Finance Committee of the Prison Relocation Commission dug deeply into each and every option of how the new prison might be financed. This included entertaining requests from private financiers - including notorious private prison corporation the GEO Group - to fund the prison construction under various (and not publicly revealed) financing schemes.  

In other states, private prison corporations such as GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America have sought to utilize their substantial cash reserves (at a time when, thankfully, very few new prisons are being constructed) by buying correctional facilities and then leasing those facilities back to state and municipal governments. Such an effort was recently defeated by anti-private-prison activists in Marion County, Florida

While such private financing of public infrastructure - and, more generally, public-private partnerships (jauntily refered to as P3 or even P4 collaborations) - are less inherently problematic than outright private corporate operation of public correctional facilities, there are risks. Donald Cohen of In the Public Interest has written extensively on the risks, and ITPI has produced some very helpful general guides for the public to use when considering the appropriateness of privatization of public services and facilities (attached for your information at the end of this blog!). 

According to Rep. Wilson, Utah's excellent bond rating means that public financing is simply a better deal than private - there's no incentive to utilize private monies to front the cost of the new prison because public bonding is less expensive. ESPECIALLY if recommended reforms have the desired impact of averting future prison population growth (fingers crossed). 

FOURTH - no matter where the exact location of the new prison will be, we know that it will be located somewhere along the Wasatch Front near a major population center. According to Senate Chair Jerry Stevenson, the four "most promising" sites are all in either Utah or Salt Lake County. This is VERY good news, for several reasons. The proximity of the new site to a major population center ensures easier access to legal, medical and community services. It means that volunteers and family members will be able to continue visiting inmates - helping those inmates better prepare to return to our communities as productive and connected members of society (Utah State Prison has one of the biggest volunteer forces in the nation!). 

But there's another reason to put this news in the "good" column: it means that the Prison Relocation Commission, the Prison Relocation and Development Authority (PRADA) before it, and MGT of America (as a bridge between both entities) took seriously the community comments made throughout the relocation process. In particular, those legislators who are serving on the PRC, and also served on PRADA - Sen. Jerry Stevenson, Rep. Brad Wilson and Rep. Eric Hutchings - deserve the public's appreciation for having a largely open and transparent process that has so far produced results that reflect community concerns and input. 

Perhaps that's why the tide of public opinion has turned somewhat over the past couple of years with regards to the prison relocation. Of course, many people still express that they think the move is unnecessary, and perhaps more beneficial to developers who have their eyes on that valuable Pooint of the Mountain land. But in March of this year, a survey revealed that close to half of Utahns were coming around to the idea of moving the prison. Perhaps we can chalk that up to PRADA's responsiveness to public comment, as well as to the Utah Department of Corrections vision for what a more up-to-date and state-of-the-art prison could accomplish (in terms of inmate and staff safety, rehabilitative impact and recidivism reduction)? 

The next meeting critical to the prison relocation conversation isn't on Dec. 15, though, when the PRC meets again. It takes place on November 12 - when the full Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice meets to officially vote on its recommendations for criminal justice reform (9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., Copper Room, Senate Building, Utah State Capitol). You can read the initial draft recommendations in the presentation posted here - bottom of the page - and you can share your thoughts about the changes with CCJJ members before that Nov. 12 meeting. 

If you have any comments or questions about the content of this blog post, please don't hesitate to contact Public Policy Advocate Anna Brower at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.