In our opinion: Prison relocation iffy

Published: Saturday, March 8 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

The Utah State Prison and surrounding area in Salt Lake County.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News Archives

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A resolution to move the State Prison in Draper is making its way to the governor’s desk as the 2014 legislative session winds down. As its chief sponsor, Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, told the Deseret News, this would change the discussion from whether to move the prison to where and when the move should take place.

But we fear that another, more important discussion is not getting the attention it deserves. That is the discussion about how to reform the corrections system in order to enhance rehabilitation and reduce recidivism.

Those are items Gov. Gary Herbert has correctly said should be the driving factors in prison relocation. They are what truly should matter to residents of Utah. People may not prefer to think about prisons or the people housed inside, but prisons and rehabilitation programs are among the most important functions modern governments provide.

With this as the guide, lawmakers may find that the current location could be renovated to meet these goals. They also may find that a move would sacrifice too many of the ancillary benefits in Draper, including a dedicated core of community volunteers that provide, among other things, religious counseling to inmates.

To the credit of Wilson and Senate sponsor Jerry W. Stevenson, R-Layton, the resolution puts a high priority on these things. It notes that, in finding a place to relocate the prison, the state should take into account “the efforts of the Commission of Criminal and Juvenile Justice” to examine ways to enhance public safety and rehabilitation, and that the new location “should help facilitate an adequate level of volunteer and staff support…”

But it’s unclear everyone is onboard with those priorities. The resolution also concludes that moving the prison would lead to “cost savings” that would outweigh the “substantial expense” of fixing the current facility. Frankly, that is a case that has yet to be made convincingly to taxpayers, using hard figures. The resolution would put the state on record in favor of relocation without a firm site for the new prison, which is troubling. We understand the delicate nature of real estate transactions and the need for a level of propriety, but the lack of an alternate site makes cost comparisons little more than a guess.

Draper City’s recent unveiling of an artistic rendering of how the current site might be developed, complete with gleaming skyscrapers, was troubling. It represents little more than a wish, but it also might have the effect of steering relocation discussions toward the possible riches to be reaped by developers. Lawmakers should avoid even the perception that this really is driving relocation efforts.

If the prison is moved, the state should have a say in the eventual uses of that land with an eye toward appropriate public purposes, much as it did more than 60 years ago when the previous prison site became Sugarhouse Park and Highland High School. The 700 acres on which the Draper prison sits easily could accommodate public and private development.

It is important to remember that in 2005, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., commissioned a study on prison relocation by a team of real estate, prison and appraisal experts, led by Wikstrom Economic & Planning Consultants. That study concluded the cost of relocation would exceed the amount made from the sale of the current site.

Before committing to a move, lawmakers should make a convincing case that those figures no longer apply. They also should demonstrate that public safety and rehabilitation are top priorities.

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