John Florez: Moving prison violates public trust

Published: Saturday, Jan. 26 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

A committee created by the 2011 Legislature recommended last month to relocate the state prison to "allow private development of the land on which the state prison is presently located."

Brian Nicholson, Deseret News

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The train has left the station and it looks like the only one that can stop it is the governor. A committee created by the 2011 Legislature recommended last month to relocate the state prison to "allow private development of the land on which the state prison is presently located."

How blatant can it be? It looks like the tracks may have been greased from the start to move the prison for "private development." No consideration was given to the public's interest. Now, it looks like the taxpayers might get stuck with the cost of moving the prison to who knows where at a cost estimated to be $461 million, according to one of several studies requested by the state in 2005 (Wikstrom Economic and Planning Consultants).

This is one big reason why citizens don't trust politicians. They insult the intelligence of the public, believing community members don't understand the shell game politicians often play. But the public does understand — they just don't have lobbyists to work for them.

The committee studied the matter for a year, asking developers to come up with proposals to move the prison. It seems they were asking developers to write their own ticket, without the committee conducting any in-depth studies on how moving the prison would promote the public's interest. They claimed the 2005 Wikstrom study was outdated, yet never conducted their own. It seems they never seriously considered the taxpayers' interests, only how quickly they could move the prison for private development.

There was no indication the committee gave thoughtful consideration to the purpose of the prison — to assure the public's safety and the rehabilitation of prisoners. Since it is estimated that 95 percent of prisoners return to their communities, you would think the committee would take rehabilitation into consideration. Management of prisoners and their return to our communities is vital, and that includes maintaining contact with their families. Prison relocation, requiring lengthy travel for families, may make those visits prohibitive.

The committee didn't seem to seriously consider the safety concerns and costs related to managing prisoners from a more distant location, concerns such as: Transportation costs of prisoners to and from jails, courts, parole hearings, hospitals and urgent care facilities; the displacement of more than 700 experienced prison employees, many of whom have established homes in Utah County; loss of volunteers, training of new workers and increased transition costs. The state has made a huge investment in training correctional officers, and not stopping to consider the impact of losing these officers only puts the lives of prisoners, officers and the public at risk. If one prisoner escapes and murders a citizen or an officer, we will see lawmakers quickly calling for the dismissal of a low level correctional staff person.

The governor has said, "any proposal must be open, clearly feasible, aligned with established process and beneficial to Utah's taxpayers ... We are going to do it right, and no matter what proposals come forth, the ultimate litmus test is whether it is in taxpayers' best interest." Let's hope he does the right thing.

But where is the friendly opposition? Until we elect leaders who have the moral courage to look after the public's interests, taxpayers will be the losers. In the meantime, the public's trust in our government will continue to wane.

A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served as former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education. Email him at jdflorez@comcast.net.

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