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Inside Utah State Prison: Should it stay or should it go?

Most facilities have years of use left

Published: Thursday, Sept. 3 2015 8:03 p.m. MDT

An inmate hangs his hands outside the bars at the  Utah State Prison Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) An inmate hangs his hands outside the bars at the Utah State Prison Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

UTAH STATE PRISON — In 1951, the first busload of inmates rolled up to the Utah State Prison in Draper.

At that time, the new prison was the only major structure in an otherwise rural area.

Today is a different story. Homes and businesses nearly surround the 690-acre site near Point of the Mountain, prompting serious discussions about moving the prison somewhere outside of Salt Lake County.

This past week, Tooele County commissioners passed a resolution declaring their interest in housing the new prison. They also met with the lieutenant governor to listen to what the state might have to offer.

On Monday, a legislative committee is expected to recommend to the full Senate a bill that would establish a process to relocate the prison and develop the Draper property it now occupies. 

Steve Turley, the prison director of Institutional Operations,  walks through the razor wire at the the Utah State Prison  Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Steve Turley, the prison director of Institutional Operations, walks through the razor wire at the the Utah State Prison Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

As the debates intensify over whether the 62-year-old prison should be moved, the Deseret News toured the Utah State Prison to see first hand what condition the prison is in. While some of the facilities are still being used longer than they were designed to last, most of the buildings — particularly the housing units — still have years of use left in them.

In fact, only about 30 percent of the 122 buildings there are being used past their intended life cycle, according to prison records. 

Pros and cons

On one side of the debate, those who want to move the prison say that the 690 acres could yield a $20 billion return and bring as many as 40,000 jobs, according to Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City. Jenkins served on the Prison Relocation Authority Committee that was assigned to look at whether moving the prison was feasible. The committee recommended in December that the state should pursue a move.

Razor wire around the  Utah State Prison  Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Razor wire around the Utah State Prison Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Moving the prison could cost up to $600 million, Jenkins said. But a new facility would also save an estimated $20 million annually in operating costs, while the land would bring at least $140 million, he said.

Those who oppose it say a deal now would hurt taxpayers and only serve the interests of real estate executives and land developers. Some residents are also leery about whether they'll be stuck paying for new development with increased taxes.

Critics also say the move would be too costly and the predicted returns are unlikely.

The two state prisons in Draper and Gunnison currently employ about 2,200 people and maintain about 1,600 volunteers. The Utah Public Employees' Association represents many of those employees. UPEA spokesman Todd Losser said his group is taking a wait-and-see approach before weighing in about a potential move and how it might affect employees. The organization first wants to hear what final decisions are made.

Inmates walk past their cells at the Utah State Prison's Wasatch housing units,  Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Inmates walk past their cells at the Utah State Prison's Wasatch housing units, Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Prison officials likewise are declining to say whether a new home is a good idea, officially saying that they'll go along with whatever legislators decide.

But former Department of Corrections Executive Director Tom Patterson said last year that while a full or partial move of the prison could work over a number of years, he cautioned the relocation committee not to let money be the lone factor in deciding whether to move the prison.

"The location of a new facility is important for rehabilitation purposes and should not be placed 'out of sight, out of mind,'" he said. "We talk too much about the economics. ... These are people that return back to us. What are we doing to help repair them?"

Patterson also expressed concern about moving the prison too far away from volunteers who help at the Draper facility as well as employees. In addition, a relocation may mean longer drives for family members who visit their loved ones in prison. Patterson said family involvement is an important part of the rehabilitation process.

 Utah State Prison main entrance Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Utah State Prison main entrance Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

"I don't want to be old-fashioned," he said. "But there's something about the holding of hands and meeting of eyes, particularly when you're talking about children."

62 years ago

In 1951, approximately 500 inmates were moved into the Wasatch housing unit at the new prison. Black and white photographs of that day still hang in the entryway of Wasatch.

In one picture, corrections officers are watching as the buses roll up to the gate. In another, all the inmates can be seen sitting and eating at cafeteria tables, all facing the same direction. Back then, all of the inmates could be seated and fed in the same room at the same time.

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

The new Utah State Prison replaced the Sugar House Prison, also known as the Utah Territorial Prison — located in the area of 2200 South and 1300 East — which was closed after more than 90 years in existence. Today, Highland High School and Sugarhouse Park occupy the former prison land.

Lawmakers first gave the green light for construction of the current state prison to begin in 1937, according to the Utah State Archives website.

"It was to be built on a 'pay-as-you-go' basis. A Draper farm site of 1,009 acres, 22 miles south of Salt Lake City was chosen. After a work stoppage caused by World War II shortages, prisoners were moved to the new prison facility in 1951," according to the state's website.

Inmates hold  the bars at the  Utah State Prison  Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Inmates hold the bars at the Utah State Prison Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Today, there are approximately 7,000 people incarcerated by the Department of Corrections in Utah. About 3,800 are housed at the Draper facility. Prison officials say about 120 more inmates entered the prison than were released in 2012, and the prison population is estimated to grow by another 140 by the end of 2013.

The old

Corrections officials currently list 122 buildings at the Utah State Prison in Draper. Some of the oldest buildings still on the property have been there longer than the inmates. The oldest structure is listed as a storage building, built in 1944. The original administration building at Wasatch was built in 1948.

The Utah State Prison has 27 structures listed as housing units. The average age of a housing unit at the Utah State Prison is 33 years.

 Utah State Prison cells Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Utah State Prison cells Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Four of the five perimeter security guard towers are the original 1951 structures. The recommended life cycle of the towers, according to prison officials, is 30 years. This year, they turn 62.

The housing units are named after Utah's mountain ranges: Wasatch, Oquirrh, Timpanogos and Uinta are the main facilities.

Walking through the Wasatch A and B blocks is like taking a tour through history. The concrete buildings are all the original structures. Prison officials say the recommended life cycle of the structures is 60 years, which has recently been exceeded. The gym, cafeteria and culinary areas, laundry room, chapel, barber shop and library are all original. There is no air conditioning, so big fans are used in some areas during the summer.

The Wasatch housing blocks today are used for temporary housing, overflow and inmates who are in transit such as those who are transferred temporarily from the Gunnison facility to attend a court hearing in Salt Lake City or a doctor's appointment.

 One of the Utah State Prison's former death row cells that are now used for storage  Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) One of the Utah State Prison's former death row cells that are now used for storage Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

The A and B blocks of Wasatch each have 95 cells. They are essentially a wall of cells, stacked several stories deep on top of each other. The doors are opened and closed manually by a corrections officer using a device called the Johnson Bars. It's the same type of mechanism used in Alcatraz, according to the officers. The equipment is so old that when a part breaks, prison officials end up having to make the replacement part themselves because no one manufactures it anymore.

Although inmates no longer all eat together in a single room, the cafeteria area is still used today.

In the rear of the Wasatch structure is the warehouse area where license plates and road signs are made. As Steve Turley, the prison director of Institutional Operations, walks through the facility, the inmates who are allowed to work around the heavy machinery all greet him with a smile and shake hands.

 Utah State Prison  Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Utah State Prison Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

One inmate, who has been incarcerated nearly continuously at the Draper facility since 1955, was asked what has changed in Wasatch since he first arrived at the prison.

"Not much," he replied.

Some cracks, apparently caused by water damage, are visible on the exterior of the structure. Turley said workers at the Wasatch housing units deal with ongoing water and maintenance issues continuously.

The new

The Utah State Prison's newest building, a facility where audio books are made for the blind, was completed in 2011.

In contrast to the original Wasatch facility, the four Oquirrh housing blocks were built in 1987. They have a recommended 34 years remaining in their life cycles.

Sgt. Christian Stevens uses the old manual cell closing device, called the Johnson Bar, at the Utah State Prison  Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Sgt. Christian Stevens uses the old manual cell closing device, called the Johnson Bar, at the Utah State Prison Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Inside the Oquirrh facilities, the pods are laid out in a modern, more open design so corrections officers have a "straight on" view of all the inmates at once, Turley explained. In addition, all of the cells can be opened and closed with the push of a button.

"Each time a prison is built, you get the most modern facility," he said.

Both the Wasatch and Oquirrh housing blocks are for medium security inmates.

The Timpanogos housing block is for women inmates. It was built in 1983 and has a recommended 30-year life cycle remaining on each of its four housing units.

The Uinta housing units are for maximum security inmates. Two of the Uinta housing blocks were built in 1987 and two were updated in 1998. They have a recommended 34 to 45 years left in their life cycles. Uinta I, where death row inmates are held, has unofficially been referred to as "Supermax." It still has 34 years remaining in its recommended life cycle.

An inmate holds the bars at the  Utah State Prison  Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) An inmate holds the bars at the Utah State Prison Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Uinta 5 used to house death row. Today, the original cells that once held some of Utah's most notorious death row inmates — including Gary Gilmore, Arthur Gary Bishop, Pierre Dale Selby and William Andrews — are today filled with boxes and used as extra storage space and supply rooms. The rest of Uinta 5, built in 1968, is the first stop for new inmates where they are "checked in" and receive orientation.

Who wants it?

Two areas have been mentioned on Utah's Capitol Hill as likely sites for a new prison: Tooele County and Utah County. Box Elder and Juab counties have also been discussed.

Tooele County commissioners met with Utah's lieutenant governor on Thursday to say they are interested in listening to any proposals, should the state decide to move the prison.

Historical photo of the Utah State Prison. Inmates used to all eat at the same time. Today the inmates eat in their cells, but the cafeteria and culinary area are still used today. (, ) Historical photo of the Utah State Prison. Inmates used to all eat at the same time. Today the inmates eat in their cells, but the cafeteria and culinary area are still used today. (, )

"We want to be cautionary, check things out. We're not saying, 'Yeah, we we want it.' We're just interested in looking at the possibility," said Tooele County Commissioner Jerry Hurst. "Let's see what you're going to offer."

The Tooele County Commission passed a resolution Tuesday declaring its interest in the possibility of having the prison. Hurst said the mayors and council members of Tooele City and Grantsville are also on board with the idea.

A couple of areas are being looked at in Tooele County, the most promising being just west of Grantsville off I-80 in an area known as Tempe. The county is interested in the jobs the prison would bring to the area and the economic impact it would have, Hurst said.

"We have a work force, we have infrastructure, we have everything needed to facilitate the prison out there — plenty of open space and room," added Tooele County Commission Chairman Bruce Clegg. "(That area) won't be incumbered by residents for a long time to come."

 An inmate looks out of the window at the Utah State Prison  Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) An inmate looks out of the window at the Utah State Prison Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Draper officials have not expressed any desire to keep the prison where it is. During a June meeting of the Prison Relocation Authority Committee, city officials expressed support for moving the prison.

"Jobs bring people and people bring their wallets," Draper Mayor Darrell Smith said. Another big plus for the city would be the ability to collect taxes on what is now state-owned land.

E-mail: preavy@desnews.com

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