Inside Utah State Prison: Should it stay or should it go?

Most facilities have years of use left

Published: Sunday, Feb. 24 2013 5:45 p.m. MST

An inmate hangs his hands outside the bars at the Utah State Prison Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

UTAH STATE PRISON — In 1951, the first busload of inmates rolled up to the Utah State Prison in Draper.

At that time, the new prison was the only major structure in an otherwise rural area.

Today is a different story. Homes and businesses nearly surround the 690-acre site near Point of the Mountain, prompting serious discussions about moving the prison somewhere outside of Salt Lake County.

This past week, Tooele County commissioners passed a resolution declaring their interest in housing the new prison. They also met with the lieutenant governor to listen to what the state might have to offer.

On Monday, a legislative committee is expected to recommend to the full Senate a bill that would establish a process to relocate the prison and develop the Draper property it now occupies. 

As the debates intensify over whether the 62-year-old prison should be moved, the Deseret News toured the Utah State Prison to see first hand what condition the prison is in. While some of the facilities are still being used longer than they were designed to last, most of the buildings — particularly the housing units — still have years of use left in them.

In fact, only about 30 percent of the 122 buildings there are being used past their intended life cycle, according to prison records. 

Pros and cons

On one side of the debate, those who want to move the prison say that the 690 acres could yield a $20 billion return and bring as many as 40,000 jobs, according to Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City. Jenkins served on the Prison Relocation Authority Committee that was assigned to look at whether moving the prison was feasible. The committee recommended in December that the state should pursue a move.

Moving the prison could cost up to $600 million, Jenkins said. But a new facility would also save an estimated $20 million annually in operating costs, while the land would bring at least $140 million, he said.

Those who oppose it say a deal now would hurt taxpayers and only serve the interests of real estate executives and land developers. Some residents are also leery about whether they'll be stuck paying for new development with increased taxes.

Critics also say the move would be too costly and the predicted returns are unlikely.

The two state prisons in Draper and Gunnison currently employ about 2,200 people and maintain about 1,600 volunteers. The Utah Public Employees' Association represents many of those employees. UPEA spokesman Todd Losser said his group is taking a wait-and-see approach before weighing in about a potential move and how it might affect employees. The organization first wants to hear what final decisions are made.

Prison officials likewise are declining to say whether a new home is a good idea, officially saying that they'll go along with whatever legislators decide.

But former Department of Corrections Executive Director Tom Patterson said last year that while a full or partial move of the prison could work over a number of years, he cautioned the relocation committee not to let money be the lone factor in deciding whether to move the prison.

"The location of a new facility is important for rehabilitation purposes and should not be placed 'out of sight, out of mind,'" he said. "We talk too much about the economics. ... These are people that return back to us. What are we doing to help repair them?"

Patterson also expressed concern about moving the prison too far away from volunteers who help at the Draper facility as well as employees. In addition, a relocation may mean longer drives for family members who visit their loved ones in prison. Patterson said family involvement is an important part of the rehabilitation process.

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