SALT LAKE CITY — Volunteer Pat Buniva pleaded Thursday with members of the committee considering whether to recommend moving the Utah State Prison to keep the facility in Draper as a "beacon of hope."
Buniva, volunteer coordinator for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, said serving as a religious services volunteer at the prison for the past 6 ½ years "has opened my eyes" to the impact of faith on inmates.
Her voice cracked as she described a female inmate's joy at graduating high school and enrolling in a culinary arts program, a way out of the prostitution and addiction that had sent her to prison.
"When I first heard the property at Point of the Mountain was being coveted, I was heartbroken," Buniva said, referring to proposals to build a new prison or prisons elsewhere in the state and sell off the nearly 700 acres to developers.
"I implore you to leave the prison where it is," she told the Prison Relocation and Development Authority Committee. "That prison stands as a beacon of hope. It is so visible."
Seeing the decades-old buildings, Buniva said, prompts the public to help those inside.
"You would be astounded at the number who have found God within those walls," she said. "What's happening there is priceless."
Other religious volunteers testifying Thursday warned that moving the facility too far could decrease the public's involvement in a wide range of programs that serve inmates of 26 different faiths.
Wayne Parker, LDS corrections regional director, said about 450 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints visit the prison at least once a week, while another 300 members volunteer as needed.
Nearly all of them, Parker said, are from Salt Lake County or northern Utah County. Moving the prison to a less-populated area of the state will affect the pool of volunteers.
"It's obvious to us it will make it more difficult for us to have a high number of volunteers if we're away from a high population area," he said. "We will adapt to what you decide to do."
Paul Hewitt, leader of the Wasatch Presbyterian Church's prison ministry program, said participation comes "down to location, location, location" for many volunteers.
Members of the committee reacted to the concerns.
"I'll try to hold it together, but I've been so touched by everything that's been said," Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, said. "You're shining a real ray of hope" in what he called a dark place.
Urquhart said while expanding the Gunnison Prison in central Utah "just makes so much sense," the possibility of losing volunteers gives him pause.
"It's such an important point that I didn't comprehend," he said.
Later in the meeting, committee Chairman Lane Summerhays also raised the possibility of expanding the Gunnison Prison. Summerhays said he believes the committee could be ready to seek bids for new facilities there within 90 days.
No action was taken Thursday on his suggestion.
Craig Burr, division director of programming for the state Department of Corrections, expressed gratitude for the volunteers and called them "as important as water and power at our facilities."
There are nearly 1,300 volunteers at the Draper facility, including more than 1,000 from Salt Lake County, providing services ranging from substance abuse counseling to a family history center.
Religious worship available includes Siddha Yoga, pagan, Muslim, Native American and Tibetan Buddhism meditation, in addition to LDS, Catholic, Baptist and other faiths.
The committee also heard from the department's medical administrator, Dr. Richard Garden, that some prisoners would still need acute care services from University of Utah Hospital or Intermountain Medical Center.
"There are great advantages," Garden said, of having the prison located near the Wasatch Front.
Representatives of the courts said the prison must be able to provide inmates access to hearings, often in person because of state and federal constitutional protections.