DRAPER — The prospect of evicting the main Utah State Prison from its 670-acre site in southwest Salt Lake County is once again percolating on Capitol Hill, along with all the ramifications of relocating its nearly 4,000 inmates to a more remote section of the state.
But any evaluation of a potential new home for prisoners has to not only consider the impact to staffing and inmates, but the implications for the less visible but critically important volunteer force in place at Draper, said Utah Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City.
A state Legislature-created prison relocation committee is poised to begin sifting through proposals that would detail the cost of a new facility, how much money the Draper land would generate through redevelopment and the fallout to staff and volunteers.
Jenkins said the committee is gathering information for a "high altitude" view of the most basic elements of the idea. A list of recommendations, he said, will be delivered to the governor's office and the full body of the Legislature in the general session that begins in January.
It's been seven years since the state last contemplated such a move, with an independent study that found the $461 million price of moving the prison far overshadowed how much the prime land might sell for, $93 million.
The relocation study, since relegated to the back burner, did identify three potential new sites for a wholesale move of the Draper operations: Box Elder County, northern Juab County and Tooele County's Rush Valley, which was ultimately identified as the most ideal site because it would present the least amount of disruption to staff, inmates, their families and volunteers.
Even then, Jenkins said, he's unsure why Rush Valley wound up as a potentially attractive candidate.
"It's pretty remote out there. It's 42 miles one way," from Salt Lake City, he said, and that would create a different reality for the average 1,500 people who weekly visit the Draper site to spend time with a friend or family member.
Then there are the volunteers.
"Volunteers have to be a huge part of this. That is one of the driving forces that has to be considered. Some of those volunteers already may drive long distances," but Jenkins wondered aloud at how far is the "too far" that could be the breaking point that deters giving up one's time.
Carol Webster, who is beginning her eighth year as a volunteer at the prison, said she suspects relocation to a place like Rush Valley would drastically reduce the Draper volunteer pool, which numbers 1,100 people.
"I think it would make a tremendous difference," said Webster, who lives in Holladay. "Most of the volunteers are retired people. I think it would very difficult if we had to travel that distance."
She and her husband, Gary, accepted a call from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to serve at the prison's Family History Center, helping offenders trace their own ancestry and training them to input records for the church.
A couple years later when the term of service had ended, she volunteered to stay on and now offers her time at the prison chapel.
"I just kept on volunteering because I love it," she said.
Her passion to help, however, has been met with astonishment by some and disdain by others when they find out where she volunteers.
"People say, 'What? You go where?' and ask why I would want to associate with people like 'them — those kind of people."
For her, the response comes easily.
"I usually say, why not? What are we here for? What is our purpose? Aren't we here to help our fellow man? What better place to do it than at a prison? Most of the guys here, they're people like the rest of us," she said. "Sure they have made some bad mistakes, bad choices, but most of them are coming into the chapel for activities because they want to better themselves."
Without volunteers, Webster suspects, many of the programs offered to inmates would go away because they are ancillary to the Department of Corrections' main offender services.
The crocheting program, she said, is an example where everyone benefits. Inmates fashion scarves, blankets and hats from donated yarn and the items are then given to Primary Children's Medical Center, Shriners Hospital or homeless shelters.
"You'd be amazed if you saw some of the items they have done. They are master crocheters. You see these men covered with tattoos with big fat fingers doing these cute little baby blankets. It's great."
Prison officials say it is volunteers like Webster who fill an inspirational role to inmates — both secular and spiritual — that the prison employees can't.
About 80 percent of the prison's volunteer pool donates time in activities involving religion, which keeps the state out of the thorny First Amendment entanglement of mixing religion with government business.
Beyond that, however, is the value of humanity that volunteers bring with them through those prison doors, said Lt. Bryan Taylor, director of the prison's Division of Programming, Religious and Volunteer services.
"There is a difference between staff and volunteer. The volunteers can be a strong role model. They bring a different air about them, a different way of interacting with these guys. The offenders know they would not be there if they did not care."
The majority of the Draper volunteer pool also comes from the Salt Lake Valley area, and Taylor speculated aloud how relocation to a more remote spot would play out.
"I imagine it would create quite a disruption."
In many ways, inmates are like light bulbs who need to be turned on to the possibility of a better path, a better way through life that is full of good, not bad. Taylor said volunteers are often the "switch" that illuminates that possibility.
"They're able to catch a vision of what their life would be if they put the right things into play. I truly believe everybody has it within themselves to overcome their issues. Sometimes they just don't realize how to tap into that internal ability," he said. "It is about getting in contact with the right person at the right time. We help them on a vision of self-discovery."
Volunteers, he said, light that way by reaching out to the hardened, the lost, the hopeless or the bitter by simply giving of themselves.
"That is who these people are, is their faith," he said. "When it comes to volunteers actually changing people, it really has to do with why we do what we do, and that's faith."
Taylor and the previous supervisor over the division, Lt. Jeff Koehler, firmly stand behind the conviction that a life changed inside becomes many more lives changed on the outside, like one domino tipping to a cascade of others that follow.
"The ultimate goal of volunteer service is stronger, safer, healthier and happier communities, that is their goal," Koehler said.
A skeptical public may wonder at the effort to help those whom the justice system has deemed are in need of separation from society because of their criminal behavior.
"I view every success that we make as the way to lessen the potential for future victims. The role of volunteers is essential to recidivism," Taylor said.
"The inmates learn how to give back, give to the community. They learn selfless behavior," Taylor said. "If we do nothing, these people will eventually get back out — there is only 5 percent of the individuals who won't get out. And they will learn in prison how to become better criminals, slicker, more crafty."
A relocation of the Draper prison to another remote section of Utah would take it out of the heart of the Salt Lake County community and possibly result in the heart of the volunteer community being taken out of the prison.
"We have a couple of volunteers who have volunteered out here at least 25 years," Koehler said. "They are dedicated and committed and some already drive long distances to give just a couple hours of time. What keeps them coming back is they realize the importance of their support to our offenders."
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