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Remember That Prison Utah is Building?

21 September 2016 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

Yes, there IS going to be a new prison in Utah. That's (surprisingly) not necessarily bad news. Screen Shot 2016 09 21 at 9.22.28 AM

But ONLY because we are talking about a new REPLACEMENT prison - and not a new ADDITIONAL prison.

On Monday, the state’s Prison Development Commission met for the first time since January. The frequency of PDC meetings this year has been somewhat out of step with the fairly constant public fascination with the entire prison relocation process (from current site in Draper to proposed site west of the airport) since 2013. You can download the entire presentation from this week's meeting at the bottom of this post. You can also visit the state legislative website here to download the report, review the minutes or listen to the meeting in its entirity.

Monday’s PDC meeting came as a relief to advocacy groups like the ACLU of Utah, the Utah Prisoner Advocate Network, the Alliance for a Better Utah and others who have been actively following this process for years. Despite numerous promises of transparency, community involvement and on-going communication at the PDC’s January meeting, information about the process has not been forthcoming throughout the winter, spring and summer.

It’s true that most of the progress on the prison development effort since January has been fairly technical and largely un-related to prison design and programming. For example, the state only recently settled on the exact parcel of land it would purchase for the prison site; the purchase negotiations took some time.

However, state leaders must never forget that hundreds of people work and volunteer at the Utah State Prison, and thousands more actually LIVE there. These people – as well as their families, their loved ones, and their advocates – have concerns about their future quality of life. Even mundane conversations about mosquito abatement and soil quality are of pressing importance to those who will spend many – or all – of the hours in each day at the new facility.

While a sort-of new state information website has proven only marginaly informational, Monday’s public meeting of the Prison Development Commission was, by comparison, very informative. In less than 90 minutes, several of local advocates' pressing fears were assuaged (for the moment). Here are five of those fears, and a bit about the new information that assuaged them.

FEAR #1: The new prison isn’t really going to happen. There is a persistent concern, among those who work on behalf of inmates and advocate for their humane treatment, that the prison relocation/development process will somehow fall apart. Many community members and prisoners’ rights activists have invested a great deal of time and energy in research, advocacy and public education since 2013. It would be a massive disappointment, after all that, to see inmates end up living in the same old deplorable conditions at the current Utah State Prison.

RELIEF: The new prison definitely seems to be happening. The design and planning process is proceeding full steam ahead. The various public servants involved seem committed to the idea that we will open this new correctional facility sometime between 2020 and 2021. We strongly recommend that the PDC meet at least quarterly to assure the public that this project is indeed progressing.

FEAR #2: The new prison design will be as bad, or worse, than what we have now. After all the promises of something new, innovative and more humane, what if the new correctional facility is just a nasty block of windowless solitary confinement cells, or a big warehouse with no recidivism-reducing programs? When your dad, or your sister, or your high school pal is a prisoner there, this question keeps you up at night.

RELIEF: GSBS Architects, led by Kevin Miller on this project, seem genuinely committed to something different and better. Their designs thus far spring from the concept of “normalization” – making life inside the facility as similar to life outside as possible, to reduce recidivism and ease re-entry. GSBS Architects, along with Department of Corrections staff, have met with several prisoners’ rights groups to collect feedback and develop this vision.

FEAR #3: Even if a great design is proposed, the state will run out of money, momentum or political will…and end up building something terrible (see above).

RELIEF: According to reports at the PDC meeting, there are no cash flow problems at this time. The project is operating, for the most part, within budget. The contractors are aware of budgetary constraints, and current design proposals appear to fall within those constraints. However, we are civil liberties advocates, not accounting experts, so we will continue to watch this area with great concern.

FEAR #4: There will be endless delays, forcing current Utah State Prison inmates to languish in facilities that are in desperate need of improvement. Currently, USP prisoners – as well as visitors, volunteers and staff! – struggle with inadequate heating and cooling systems, extremely limited space for religious and educational programming, therapeutic areas that provide insufficient privacy, and other serious facility-related challenges. With a new prison on the horizon, it’s not financially prudent to invest in serious upgrades at USP.

RELIEF: Well, we’ve already seen some softening of the 2020 goal for opening the new correctional facility. Complicated land selection and parcel purchasing processes have shifted projections toward a more forgiving “2020/2021” deadline. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Department of Facilities and Construction Management has expressed a commitment to completing the project correctly rather than just quickly, using an “iterative process” that will constantly accommodate new information. However, it’s important to remember that every delay in new prison construction means more days suffered in old prison conditions for thousands of people. There should be some urgency here.

FEAR #5: Criminal justice reform efforts will stall, and Utah will continue this era of mass incarceration with an enormous new prison, full of beds we’ll feel obligated to fill. The prison relocation was sold to the general public (and to advocacy groups) as part-and-parcel of a larger criminal justice effort. Our hope was that investing in a new, smaller prison would commit the state to ongoing reform efforts to keep the prison population down.

RELIEF: For the moment, the plan is still to design and build a correctional facility with slightly fewer than 4,000 beds. That is smaller – though not by much – than the current facility in Draper. The current plans do leave room for future expansion. However, based on comments made at Monday’s meeting, legislators on the Prison Development Commission seem absolutely committed to never having to conduct another site selection process for additional prisons. That may be where the political will for reform comes from in the end!

We hope that the PDC will continue to meet at least quarterly to ensure the flow of information, and to ensure that the public is able to question and improve the process through their elected representatives. It is invaluable to have a regular forum for legislators to question the progress on the process and express the concerns of their constituents.