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

Most facilities have years of use left

Published: Monday, Feb. 25 2013 8:25 a.m. MST

"I don't want to be old-fashioned," he said. "But there's something about the holding of hands and meeting of eyes, particularly when you're talking about children."

62 years ago

In 1951, approximately 500 inmates were moved into the Wasatch housing unit at the new prison. Black and white photographs of that day still hang in the entryway of Wasatch.

In one picture, corrections officers are watching as the buses roll up to the gate. In another, all the inmates can be seen sitting and eating at cafeteria tables, all facing the same direction. Back then, all of the inmates could be seated and fed in the same room at the same time.

The new Utah State Prison replaced the Sugar House Prison, also known as the Utah Territorial Prison — located in the area of 2200 South and 1300 East — which was closed after more than 90 years in existence. Today, Highland High School and Sugarhouse Park occupy the former prison land.

Lawmakers first gave the green light for construction of the current state prison to begin in 1937, according to the Utah State Archives website.

"It was to be built on a 'pay-as-you-go' basis. A Draper farm site of 1,009 acres, 22 miles south of Salt Lake City was chosen. After a work stoppage caused by World War II shortages, prisoners were moved to the new prison facility in 1951," according to the state's website.

Today, there are approximately 7,000 people incarcerated by the Department of Corrections in Utah. About 3,800 are housed at the Draper facility. Prison officials say about 120 more inmates entered the prison than were released in 2012, and the prison population is estimated to grow by another 140 by the end of 2013.

The old

Corrections officials currently list 122 buildings at the Utah State Prison in Draper. Some of the oldest buildings still on the property have been there longer than the inmates. The oldest structure is listed as a storage building, built in 1944. The original administration building at Wasatch was built in 1948.

The Utah State Prison has 27 structures listed as housing units. The average age of a housing unit at the Utah State Prison is 33 years.

Four of the five perimeter security guard towers are the original 1951 structures. The recommended life cycle of the towers, according to prison officials, is 30 years. This year, they turn 62.

The housing units are named after Utah's mountain ranges: Wasatch, Oquirrh, Timpanogos and Uinta are the main facilities.

Walking through the Wasatch A and B blocks is like taking a tour through history. The concrete buildings are all the original structures. Prison officials say the recommended life cycle of the structures is 60 years, which has recently been exceeded. The gym, cafeteria and culinary areas, laundry room, chapel, barber shop and library are all original. There is no air conditioning, so big fans are used in some areas during the summer.

The Wasatch housing blocks today are used for temporary housing, overflow and inmates who are in transit such as those who are transferred temporarily from the Gunnison facility to attend a court hearing in Salt Lake City or a doctor's appointment.

The A and B blocks of Wasatch each have 95 cells. They are essentially a wall of cells, stacked several stories deep on top of each other. The doors are opened and closed manually by a corrections officer using a device called the Johnson Bars. It's the same type of mechanism used in Alcatraz, according to the officers. The equipment is so old that when a part breaks, prison officials end up having to make the replacement part themselves because no one manufactures it anymore.

Although inmates no longer all eat together in a single room, the cafeteria area is still used today.

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