The largest relocation of Utah prison inmates in 40 years began Wednesday with the transfer of 18 prisoners from Point of the Mountain to the new, state-of-the-art institution at Gunnison.
Billed as a test run for what is expected to become a routine task over the next two months, the move began at 8:30 a.m. with the support and supervision of a Department of Corrections SWAT team, a canine squad, Utah Highway Patrol troopers, a public safety airplane and law enforcement officers from four counties.By the end of November, more than 600 inmates will have made the 105-mile trip south and filled the first phase of the $36.7 million Central Utah Correctional Facility. Eventually, the new prison may house 2,160 inmates.
Not since Utah's territorial prison in Sugar House was closed in 1951 have so many inmates been moved from one institution to another, and corrections officials were determined to do the job smoothly and detect any glitches early.
David R. Franchina, deputy director of corrections for public affairs, said the first 18 inmates to make the move were "semi-volunteers" - they didn't strongly object - and were lower security risks than many who will follow.
"All of them will have jobs at Gunnison in such areas as culinary, landscaping, maintenance, laundry and such things as that," he said, adding that they represented a cross-section of offenders, including murderers, rapists and armed robbers. "However, none of them are what you would call high-profile inmates."
Twelve were from the Young Adult Offenders facility and six from the South Point unit of the Utah State Prison at Draper. Franchina said the goal is to empty the old minimum security unit and decrease overcrowding in other cellblocks at the prison by transferring inmates into vacated cells.
Ironically, the relocation began the day after a U.S. magistrate completed the evidentiary phase of a lawsuit over prison double-bunking. At issue is whether the housing of two inmates in 45-square-foot cells in the Wasatch Unit at Draper is inhumane.
Raymond Leidig, a prison consultant hired by the American Civil Liberties Union, testified Tuesday that those cells don't meet modern prison standards. Prison officials argued that factors other than cell size - availability of programmed activities and time out of the cells - should be taken into account when deciding the double-bunking issue.
Lawyers for the state also presented a Dan Jones & Associates survey that found significant public support for the prison double-bunking policy. According to the poll, 74 percent of all Utahns believe it is appropriate to house two inmates in the 45-square-foot cells. Also, only 6 percent of the respondents said inmates were being treated somewhat or very inhumanely.
U.S. Magistrate Ronald Boyce was unimpressed, telling the lawyers that a public opinion poll won't affect his decision on the constitutionality of double-bunking.
The new prison at Gunnison also houses two inmates per cell, but the cells there are 84.5 square feet and are situated around large day areas. The facility incorporates the latest prison architectural designs, including what are known as "line-of-sight" cell blocks, which permit a single guard in a control booth to monitor the activities of as many as 192 inmates.
Situated on a hillside above the small Sanpete County town, the Gunnison prison is a self-contained institution. It has an infirmary equipped with emergency medical facilities, a pharmacy, dental clinic, isolation rooms and a psychiatric ward. A courtroom offers the state the option of holding parole board hearings on site rather than transporting inmates back to Draper.
The living quarters consist of three housing modules, each containing 32 double-bunk cells on two tiers. Franchina said a staff of about 200 will operate the prison. The warden, Frederick Van Der Veur, is a 20-year veteran of corrections.
"It is impossible to operate a facility of that size without inmate assistance, which is why we're moving inmates with job assignments first," Franchina said.
Some inmates at Draper have expressed reservations about moving to Gunnison, Franchina said, but officials expect fears to diminish as the early transfers report back to others and dispel rumors. "It's just a fear of the unknown," he said.
Nevertheless, Franchina said, "It may be that some of them will go kicking and screaming as the transfers continue."