While skyrocketing numbers of prisoners in most states almost set a record the first six months of this year, a federal study says Utah's prisoner population crept up only 2.2 percent.

With an increase of only 53 inmates - from 2,394 to 2,447 - Utah ranked 43rd among the states and District of Columbia in the rate of prison population growth, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics report. The state also ranked 43rd in the number of inmates per resident: 141 per 100,000.Utah corrections officials said the figures reflect a short-term trend of "slow growth," but predicted sporadic inmate population booms consistent with other demographic trends during the next decade.

"We had periods of relatively low rates of growth at the prison during the 1980s, but we continue to expect large increases over the long run," said David R. Franchina, deputy director of corrections for public affairs.

He speculated that a perception of severe prison overcrowding and rapid inmate population growth may have contributed to the apparent decline during the first six months of 1990. Concerned judges may have opted to sentence borderline offenders to alternative programs, he explained.

With the opening last month of the first phase of the new 623-bed Central Utah Correctional Facility at Gunnison, the perception could shift to one of "room to grow," a view corrections officials would like to dispel.

Although the new $36.7 million prison will alleviate some of the overcrowding at the prison at Draper, it can't handle future growth without expansion, Franchina said. "It just gets us back to zero. We still need more space."

Legislators will be asked in January to appropriate about $25 million for phase two of the Gunnison prison, adding 768 beds by 1993. Completion of the unscheduled third phase would bring the capacity at Gunnison to 2,159.

So far, about 40 Draper inmates have made the 105-mile trek south to Gunnison, and officials expect the new prison to be full before the end of the year. The transfer will allow the department to consolidate units at Draper and ultimately vacate inadequate sections, such as the old minimum security unit, Franchina said.

But only by adding beds at Gunnison and developing new community corrections centers elsewhere can Utah stay ahead of the predicted growth, he added.

Nationwide, federal and state prison populations increased by 42,862 inmates, or 6 percent, to reach a record prisoner population of 755,425, according to the federal study. Only one six-month period ever had a higher number of new prisoners.

Based on those figures, the nation experienced an average weekly demand of 1,650 new prison beds during the first half of the year.

The largest growth in the nation was 10.5 percent in Illinois, and the smallest was a decline of 5 percent in Rhode Island. The District of Columbia had the highest number of inmates per resident - 1,339 per 100,000 - and North Dakota had the least - 66 per 100,000.

When data from the last six months of 1989 are added, Bureau of Justice Statistics Director Steven D. Dillingham said, "The annual increase of more than 80,000 inmates from midyear 1989 to midyear 1990 was the largest annual growth in 65 years of prison population statistics."

From June 30, 1989 to June 30, 1990, the prisoner population in Utah grew by 10.2 percent from 2,220 to 2,447. Utah's prison population was the 24th fastest-growing over that time.

The fastest was Illinois with 20.9 percent, and the least was Kansas with a population decline of 8.1 percent.

Franchina said the report generally confirms what corrections officials have been saying for months in response to critics who claimed the state was imprisoning offenders at a much higher rate than other states.

"Prison population patterns have to be followed over a long period of time to determine trends," Franchina said. "Overall, I think we're looking at a trend of steady prison population growth with occasional periods of great activity."


Prison stats

Prison inmates per 100,000 population:

Washington, D.C. 1,339

Utah 141

North Dakota 66

Percentage growth in prison population:

Illinois 10.5

Utah 2.2

Rhode Island -5

Nationwide 6