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In our opinion: Rehabilitation, volunteerism and prison relocation

Published: Thursday, Aug. 27 2015 8:33 p.m. MDT

The Utah State Prison may be relocated in Salt Lake County  Wednesday, June 13, 2012.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) The Utah State Prison may be relocated in Salt Lake County Wednesday, June 13, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Imprisonment is how we punish our worst offenders. Imprisonment is also a costly and difficult enterprise, with competing demands to exact some measure of justice while providing humane care, to incapacitate those who are a genuine danger while working to rehabilitate and restore to useful life as many offenders as possible.

In the 2011 legislative session, the Utah Legislature created a task force to consider relocating the state prison from its current location "in order to allow private development of the land on which the state prison is presently located."

That committee is now collecting information that will inform how and where Utah incarcerates adult offenders. The members of the committee are asking important questions about public safety and efficient use of state funds. We urge them also to explore what works for effective rehabilitation and how location affects that critical function of our prison.

Offenders have been, and will be, a part of our communities. Isolating and incapacitating them is relatively straightforward. But restoring them to productive and useful living is complex because of the need for individualized treatment and training.

Modestly compensated prison professionals provide required corrections services. In Utah, an almost equal size force of volunteers supplements the staff's work, providing a meaningful connection to the best elements of the outside world, and shoring up addiction recovery programs and transition services. Many of these volunteers are seniors, who live on limited and fixed incomes.

Access to quality professionals and volunteers alike is significantly enhanced by the prison's current location between Utah's most populous counties. So is prison visitation.

Consequently, it would be an embarrassingly incomplete analysis to simply compare the direct operational costs of required state-provided services at the current location with the proposed relocation scenarios.

The far better analysis would look at the full costs associated with effective supplementary services and how relocation would affect the delivery of those services. And when we say full costs, we mean items like the cost of time and transportation borne individually by Utah's prison professionals and Utah's unique force of prison volunteers. We mean costs such as those associated with medical care, visitation and court appearances that might increase at a remote location.

And the best analysis would try to put a conservative dollar figure on the long-term benefit derived from volunteer services and visitation, knowing how they have been successful in smoothing prisoner re-entry and reducing repeat offenses.

In addition to prioritizing effective rehabilitation in all decisions affecting the future of the Utah prison, we also urge those considering the issue to not get trapped into all-or-nothing decision-making. It need not be that the entire prison campus either stays in Draper or moves to a remote location. The committee could think in terms of which specific functions benefit the most from the current location (e.g., medical, mental health and women's services) and which functions might benefit from new facilities at a new location.

For basic safety, health and efficiency, prisons require appropriate physical facilities. But the single most important expenditure within our prisons is on redeeming the human potential of inmates.

Sixty years ago, the warden of California's San Quentin prison, Clinton Duffy, was criticized for his emphasis on rehabilitating his inmates. "Don't you know that leopards can't change their spots?" said a critic. Duffy retorted, "You should know that I don't work with leopards. I work with men, and men change every day."

Utah's correction officials and the volunteers who supplement their efforts understand the gritty challenges and the unique opportunities associated with rehabilitating inmates. It is taxing, unpredictable and unheralded. We applaud their consistent service. As deliberations advance about the future of our prison, may we recognize and value this largely unseen service. And let us not unnecessarily make distance a barrier to this courageous and redemptive work.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company