Recently on these pages, John Florez advocated that (1) Utah’s criminal justice policy be reformed, with a goal of reducing the prison population, as an essential prerequisite to planning how to replace the Draper prison site; and (2) expanding the use of Utah’s county jails to house state prison inmates should be a key aspect of Utah’s new prison system. It is remarkable that Mr. Florez could be so right on item one and so wrong on item two. Not coincidentally, Utah’s Prison Relocation and Development Authority (PRADA) is on the fast track to recommend greatly expanding the use of county jails as prisons. This policy would be a huge mistake.

Though in our everyday speech jail and prison are often used interchangeably, the resources available to rehabilitate inmates in prisons are substantially greater than those available in jails. Prisons provide far better counseling and treatment for sex offenders and substance abusers, as well as teach vocational, technical and academic skills to help inmates succeed after their sentences end. The Gunnison state prison, for example, has a huge and impressive shop where the inmates learn construction and fabrication skills.

Prison inmates present a huge rehabilitative challenge that requires the attention of the best teachers, counselors and therapists we can find, along with the best classrooms and equipment we can muster. That challenge is exacerbated when state prison inmates housed in county jails are scattered across the state in over a dozen locations and in the less-populated areas of our state. Utah already has nearly 1,600 prison inmates housed in about 15 county jails.

It’s understandable that non-urban Utah counties would see an attraction in the jobs and money derived from more prisoners. Many rural areas are desperate to replace the jobs and industry that have migrated to urban areas over the last several decades. But in states where jails-as-prisons have already expanded, such as Kentucky, Louisiana and California, it has been a disaster.

Jails are designed and operated as short-term holding facilities, so inmates languish with few or no rehabilitative opportunities. Many long-term jail inmates initiate litigation alleging unacceptable treatment. Also, the expansion creates a “prison industrial complex” wherein jobs and bonds (used to finance county jail expansion) become dependent upon a steady and continual stream of prisoners. If Louisiana ever decides to imprison fewer state inmates in its county jails, vested and entrenched interests will resist such a new policy at every turn.

Prisons are infamous for establishing complex and intimidating social hierarchies. There are rival gangs and factions, usually led by ruthless people. Jails, on the other hand, typically don’t establish these complex hierarchies because their populations are much more transient. Is it wise to mix an entrenched prison population with transient jail inmates, some of whom are in jail for very minor offenses? Imagine you have a friend or relative facing 36 hours of jail time for a minor infraction. Now, suppose your friend or relative comes to the attention of one of the long-term alpha males at the jail.

Utah’s rural counties face genuine challenges to attract good jobs. But it’s not helpful to those counties, or the entire state of Utah, to mistakenly try to address those challenges with bad policy. Your state senators and representatives will need to respond to PRADA’s expected recommendation that they expand the use of county jails as prisons. Tell them to decline the recommendation.

Eric Rumple is a policy analyst for Alliance for a Better Utah.