Jay Evensen: When it comes to moving Utah's prison, learn from the past

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 12 2014 4:13 p.m. MST

Historical photo of the Utah State Prison. The first inmates arrive at the Draper facility in 1951.

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In some ways, 1951 seems about as distant as the flickering shadows of an old movie. In other ways, such as when it comes to discussing whether to move the Utah state prison, it can seem as current as the most recent legislative hearing.

Which means we probably ought to pay attention to what happened back then.

On May 12, 1951, the state officially closed the old prison in Sugar House and moved “444 caged men,” as the Deseret News put it, to their new home in what was then dubbed Point of the Mountain.

If you think prisons, and prisoners, were somehow nicer back then, consider how inmates broke every window in the old facility and destroyed the kitchen before moving out. One man “expressed himself by stripping himself naked in his cell and burning his clothes,” the Deseret News said.

Hyrum Beebe, a convicted murderer (and, some have suggested, possibly the actual Sundance Kid), shook his fist at photographers and said, “If I had a rod I’d drill you all.”

And yet the discussion at the Legislature back then was less about how to help developers make money and more about how to help inmates, and how to transition the land where the prison stood from one important public use to another by building a regional park.

One result was a new prison this paper called “a place of rehabilitation.” Another was Sugarhouse Park.

Imagine the area without it. Now imagine a well-designed regional park in Draper, where people in that end of the valley could plan reunions and company picnics, or just go to on a sunny day to unwind and feed ducks. Why is no one talking about this?

To many folks in modern America, prisons are like sewers. They serve a necessary, if unpleasant, function. We don’t think about them if we don’t have to look at them, or if they don’t make the news.

And when they do make the news, it is usually because something has gone wrong.

But they really are much more than that, or at least they should be.

A society that values the notion of redemption and second chances ought to believe people can change; mental illnesses can be treated; counseling and intensive programs can overwrite the destructive lessons of an abusive past; and education can offer opportunities and hope.

Prison systems are among the most important functions modern governments provide — right there somewhere between schools and soccer stadiums.

Unlike sewers, Utah’s Draper facility comes face to face with many ordinary Utahns on a regular basis. Church leaders volunteer to hold services with inmates. Prisoners’ families have easy access.

And so the ongoing legislative debate over whether and where to move the state prison in Draper will provide one way to measure Utah’s level of civilization. Will the debate be driven by what is best for prisoners and their ultimate rehabilitation, or will it be driven by other factors? And if the prison is torn down, what happens to the land? Will it be sold to the highest bidders with the shiniest buildings in mind, or will at least part of it be set aside for a regional park?

When I asked Gov. Gary Herbert about this last week, he seemed to get it. “It’s about prison reform first, and economic development second,” he told me, adding that he isn’t convinced the prison needs to be moved, and he isn’t convinced a decision needs to be made quickly.

But do lawmakers get it? Do they understand that the idea developers are driving this discussion, whether true or not, is a huge perception problem?

Herbert told me about changes in how prisons are being run. In Washington, both parties seem to be uniting behind the “Smart Sentencing Act,” which holds that mass incarceration may not be the best way to help prisoners. Move too fast on a new prison, then, and Utah may build something that’s already obsolete. It also may lose the volunteers that have been so vital to the system.

Yes, the prison is old and outdated. It may cost us $100 million whether the state fixes it or moves it.

But please, let the most important things drive the discussion.

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. E-mail him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, www.jayevensen.com.

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