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Remember That Prison Utah is Building?

This article was first published in the Liberty Reporter: 2016 Fall NewsletterTCS Relocating the Prison at Draper 4 >>

Yes, there IS going to be a new prison in Utah. That’s (surprisingly) not necessarily bad news. But ONLY because we are talking about a new REPLACEMENT prison - and not a new ADDITIONAL prison.

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, loved ones, and 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 new state information website falls short of providing needed information, the September 19  public meeting of the Prison Development Commission (PDC) 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 of 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. It would be a massive disappointment to see inmates end up living in the same old deplorable conditions at the current Utah State Prison after all of the talk of a new prison.

RELIEF: The new prison is happening. The design and planning process is proceeding full steam ahead. The various public servants involved seem committed to the idea that Utah 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? 

RELIEF: GSBS Architects 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. 

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. 

RELIEF:  Complicated land selection and parcel purchasing processes have shifted projections toward a 2021 deadline but that’s not too much later then predicted. However, every delay in new prison construction means more days suffered in existing 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 is that investing in a new, smaller prison will 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 the September 19th meeting, legislators on the Prison Development Commission seem 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!

Find more about our criminal justice and prison reform work at www.acluutah.org/criminal-justice

Photo: The current Utah State Prison in Draper.