Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
DRAPER — The prospect of evicting the main Utah State Prison from its 670-acre site in southwest Salt Lake County is once again percolating on Capitol Hill, along with all the ramifications of relocating its nearly 4,000 inmates to a more remote section of the state.
But any evaluation of a potential new home for prisoners has to not only consider the impact to staffing and inmates, but the implications for the less visible but critically important volunteer force in place at Draper, said Utah Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City.
A state Legislature-created prison relocation committee is poised to begin sifting through proposals that would detail the cost of a new facility, how much money the Draper land would generate through redevelopment and the fallout to staff and volunteers.
Jenkins said the committee is gathering information for a "high altitude" view of the most basic elements of the idea. A list of recommendations, he said, will be delivered to the governor's office and the full body of the Legislature in the general session that begins in January.
It's been seven years since the state last contemplated such a move, with an independent study that found the $461 million price of moving the prison far overshadowed how much the prime land might sell for, $93 million.
The relocation study, since relegated to the back burner, did identify three potential new sites for a wholesale move of the Draper operations: Box Elder County, northern Juab County and Tooele County's Rush Valley, which was ultimately identified as the most ideal site because it would present the least amount of disruption to staff, inmates, their families and volunteers.
Even then, Jenkins said, he's unsure why Rush Valley wound up as a potentially attractive candidate.
"It's pretty remote out there. It's 42 miles one way," from Salt Lake City, he said, and that would create a different reality for the average 1,500 people who weekly visit the Draper site to spend time with a friend or family member.
Then there are the volunteers.
"Volunteers have to be a huge part of this. That is one of the driving forces that has to be considered. Some of those volunteers already may drive long distances," but Jenkins wondered aloud at how far is the "too far" that could be the breaking point that deters giving up one's time.
Carol Webster, who is beginning her eighth year as a volunteer at the prison, said she suspects relocation to a place like Rush Valley would drastically reduce the Draper volunteer pool, which numbers 1,100 people.
"I think it would make a tremendous difference," said Webster, who lives in Holladay. "Most of the volunteers are retired people. I think it would very difficult if we had to travel that distance."
She and her husband, Gary, accepted a call from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to serve at the prison's Family History Center, helping offenders trace their own ancestry and training them to input records for the church.
A couple years later when the term of service had ended, she volunteered to stay on and now offers her time at the prison chapel.
"I just kept on volunteering because I love it," she said.
Her passion to help, however, has been met with astonishment by some and disdain by others when they find out where she volunteers.
"People say, 'What? You go where?' and ask why I would want to associate with people like 'them — those kind of people."
For her, the response comes easily.
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