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Tension Over Timing: How Fast Can A Prison Be Moved...Without Messing It Up?

To answer EVERYONE'S question: NOPE. We don't know where the new prison (or prisons) will be built. We don't know if there will be one site, two sites, or more. We don't even quite know WHEN we are going to break ground (though some leaders are still crossing their fingers for 2018).

Yes, the Prison Relocation Commission met for the second time last Thursday. No, it didn't answer any of these questions.

What we DO know is this: the Prison Relocation Commission intends to know the answers to ALL these questions by December 2014, in time to make a recommendation to (and ask for an appropriation from) the full Legislature when it convenes in January 2015.

The timeline is aggressive, no doubt. (Note: Download and review the Commission's proposed super-speedy timeline at the end of this post to judge for yourself.

And that's causing a little tension. See, the PRC intends to "get things moving!" The problem is, we're not exactly sure which "things" actually should move. Utah has a historic opportunity to build a prison that utilizes the best available research on corrections from the past twenty-five years. It would be a waste to just re-build all the same "things" that we already have at Draper. For example, ancient stacked housing units that are hard for guards to patrol? Not worth rebuilding. Humane "restrictive housing" facilities that don't require prisoners in protective custody to be confined alone in their cells for 23 hours or more each day? Probably something we should look into.

Utah is currently engaged in a comprehensive review - and hopefully, eventual reform! - of its criminal justice system. We're learning a lot about what we're doing right (and wrong). But can we learn it fast enough to ensure we don't build a prison that is too big, and not supported by the right programs and facilities out in the community?

Several PRC members - Senator and Co-Chair Jerry Stevenson, for one - spoke strongly in last week's meeting about the need to let the effects of reform shape the next prison we build. Ron Gordon of the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (Commissoner Gordon?) was also adamant that Utah can use the results of the state's criminal justice review to build a better, more appropriately-sized prison that best serves public safety - and taxpayers' wallets.

That said, the Commission has a mandate to be ready come 2015 with 1) a recommended site (or sites) and 2) a $$$ figure. And other leaders have expressed frustration that the process has taken three years to get to this point...they aren't eager to "waste" any more time tinkering with bed numbers.

This tug-of-war between speed and sagacity is likely to continue throughout the summer, fall and winter. For now, the three PRC working groups have their work cut out for them. Here's a quick (self-reported) update for the working groups (complete with ACLU commentary):

SITE SELECTION WORKING GROUP: will be meeting Tuesday, June 24, 3:00 p.m., in Room 250 of the Senate Building up on the hill. Led by Sen. Stevenson and Sen. Evan Vickers, this group gets most of the attention, since they get to answer the BIG questions: Location? Location? Location?

Sen. Stevenson reported that he is getting plenty of "offers" and "applications" from communities willing to host the new prison. Unfortunately, they all share a primary disqualifying characteristic: they're just too far from the Wasatch Front and critical amenities. MGT of America, PRC's "Master Design Consultant," was very clear that only "viable" parcels of land will be rigorously evaluated as potential locations (MGT's full "Prison Siting" presentation is posted below). Places that don't meet the legislative criteria mandated last session (download the criteria at post's end) will be screened out early.

FINANCE WORKING GROUP: could be the sleeper hit of the summer in terms of public interest! The PRC was told Thursday (and the full Legislature, the month before) that Utah doesn't have the capacity to fund an entire new prison through bonding until 2020. Only a "phased construction" approach would allow building to start as soon as 2018...unless, that is, it pursues "other financing options."

Rep. Greg Hughes, who leads this group with Rep. Brad Wilson, didn't say what those "other options" are. But the ACLU of Utah has a sinking suspicion about what one of those options might be, and all we can say is....be warned! There's no such thing as a free prison.

The Finance Working Group will meet publicly on Monday, July 14, 12:00 p.m., in Room 325 of the House Building. It SOUNDS like it would be the most boring of the PRC working groups, but we think this is where tax payers will want to direct their attention.

REFORM/PROGRAMMING WORKING GROUP:  Rep. Eric Hutchings, who leads this group with Rep. Mark Wheatley, came out like a bulldog during the PRC meeting, asking tough questions that bode well for this group's contributions to the process. Hutchings, Wheatley and Ron Gordon sound fiercely committed to informing the DESIGN of the new prison with the best recommendations for effective corrections (both in prison and in the community).

They already have TWO meetings planned before the next full PRC meeting: Tuesday, July 1, 8:00 a.m., and Tuesday, July 15, 3:00 p.m., both in Room 215 of the Senate Building. On July 1, the group will take comment from a variety of stakeholders - and they want to hear specifically about alternatives to incarceration. That is VERY good news!

The next full PRC meeting will take place on Thursday, July 17, 9:00 a.m. in Room 250 of the State Capitol Building. As always, open to the public!

Have any questions about this blog post - or corrections to its content? Contact ACLU of Utah Public Policy Advocate Anna Brower at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..