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And all we're talking about is the firing squad?

10 March 2015 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

2015-Criminal-Justice-ReformBesides the firing squad, the prison relocation conversation keeps the spotlight squarely trained on what happens behind bars in Utah - and that is a GOOD thing!

This update was prepared by Anna Brower, Public Policy Advocate.

Today in missed opportunities...

Instead of talking about how well HB348 (the big Justice Reinvestment bill!) is advancing in the Utah legislature, or recently released poll results about how supportive Utahns are of this new criminal justice approach - including millions of dollars for mental health and substance abuse treatment, better community supervision in lieu of prison time, and long-needed sentencing reform - all anyone wants to talk about today is...

...the firing squad.

Last night, Utah senators voted to approve HB011, "Death Penalty Procedure Amendments," sponsored by Rep. Paul Ray  This bill has been in the works for months, and has been getting negative media attention all along the way. Technically, the legislation makes a small change to our state laws, allowing Utah to kill death row inmates by firing squad, even if they have been sentenced to die by lethal injection, should lethal injection drugs be unavailable in the future. But the negative attention from national and international media has been nonetheless HUGE: the AP story has been published all over the place since last night's vote, and reporters from Canada and Russia have been chasing down local advocates for comments. 

You may have seen our ACLU Action Alert - it makes pretty clear what we think about HB011. But more than anything, it's a huge missed opportunity to talk about whether the death penalty even has a place in Utah anymore. We're trying to reform our criminal justice system. We're also going to build a new prison. Wouldn't it make sense to talk NOW about whether we even want to build another "death row," and a dedicated "execution room," for something that causes a terrible media frenzy every decade or two? 

And SPEAKING of the new prison...you may have noticed a flurry of comment this week from the ACLU and other advocacy groups about the prison relocation process. We testified last Friday in support of Rep. Brad Wilson's HB454SB01, "Prison Development Amendments" bill,  which would allow the discussion about prison relocation to continue into 2015. On Monday morning, the ACLU of Utah, Disability Law Center, Catholic Diocese, AFLCIO, AFSCME, USARA, NAMI-Utah, and a plurality of treatment providers spoke out in favor of seeing the process continue, since many vulnerable inmate populations could benefit from a new facility - in particular, the mentally ill, female and geriatric inmates. 

These groups acknowledge that the state is unlikely to ever invest in new, improved prison facilities (which, contrary to some publicly expressed opinions, are DIRELY needed) unless there is some other economic motive to do so. The prison relocation is that motive. We don't care WHY the prison is moving - we are just happy that people are actually paying attention to the fact that we HAVE a prison and a criminal justice system that is sending too many people there. We recognized that this unprecedented opportunity to better fulfill our constitutional and humanitarian obligations to the people who end up behind bars in our state. We don't care WHERE the prison moves, as long as it meets the objective criteria set forth by the Prison Relocation Commission, formulated with input from the public. 

Draper may be a great LOCATION for a prison, but the Utah State Prison at Draper is NOT a great prison facility, and no one is likely to do anything about it unless the prison moves. People seem to enjoy reminding me that "prison is not supposed to be a vacation!" That, I understand. However, with the vast majority of inmates coming back out - and FAST (the average length of stay is a little over two years, or 26 months) - I feel like investing in a facility that won't severely injure people (mentally, physically and emotionally) is in MY best interest as a member of the public. As Channel 2 unfortunately quoted me as saying, "We don't want them to be angry and messed up when they get out!" That just not good public safety policy, people. (And yes, it IS a horrible quote, but the story overall is great; good job, Dan Rascon!) 

If you want a visceral sense of what updated prison facilities feel like, how big a difference they can make, I encourage you to visit Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison...and then take a tour of the Utah State Prison in Draper. The difference is palpable. 

Like it or not, we have important constitutional obligations to any individual, whatever he or she has done, who ends up in a government facility. It is very easy for those of us who are not IN prison, or who don't WORK in the prison, or who don't have a LOVED ONE in prison, to ignore the issues that go on inside our prisons. If nothing else, the prison relocation conversation keeps the spotlight squarely trained on what happens behind bars in Utah - and that is a GOOD thing!