Utah's Department of Corrections and the way it runs the state prison system have come in for severe criticism in recent months, particularly from the American Civil Liberties Union. But a study by the legislative auditor in response to those critics shows that Utah has a reasonably well-run program that protects the public and inmates alike.

The audit released this week showed some areas of weakness, particularly in education, training, treatment and rehabilitation for inmates. These programs have not kept pace with the growth in the number of prisoners.And the audit said there appeared to be too many employees in the corrections system who are related to each other - 300 out of 1,500 - although it said state policies against nepotism have not been violated.

Mostly, the audit was a vindication of Gary DeLand, Corrections Department director who had been a target of ACLU complaints. DeLand has announced his intention to retire next fall after a replacement is found.

However, a successful prison system is more than a place to lock up criminals and throw away the key.

Education and rehabilitation programs are a necessity in order for inmates to change their lives and be able to find a functioning place in society. Nearly all inmates are released into society sooner or later. What kind of people are being turned loose?

Rehabilitation programs can be expensive and there clearly is a high rate of failure. Not all inmates want to change, and prison can provide a different kind of learning - a crime college, so to speak. But more opportunity for education and change will rescue more prisoners.

And when rehabilitation works, it is money well spent. An inmate who goes on to become a law-abiding citizen saves society far more money than was spent on him for education and meaningful job training.

The audit suggested shifting some funds from security into rehabilitation and training. That might be a good idea if it did not reduce prison security to the danger point. Security already is less than complete.

While he agrees with the need for more prison education and training programs, DeLand points out that the prison currently cannot afford to operate three of the six guard towers at the Point of the Mountain facility.

Instead of transferring funds to provide more prison training, education and rehabilitation, the Legislature ought to consider additional financing. This is not coddling of prisoners. It is an investment in the future. If it is not made, a bigger bill will come due down the road.