Panicked by a sharp surge in the prison's population, corrections officials pleaded with a federal judge Tuesday to let them double-bunk prisoners at the Utah State Prison for the next three months.
But U.S. District Judge Thomas Greene refused to lift a preliminary injunction prohibiting double-bunking at the prison, telling officials they will have to wait for his ruling on the constitutionality of double-bunking.Gary DeLand, director of the Utah Department of Corrections, took the stand Tuesday to tell Greene that the prison faces "crunch time" on dealing with its population crisis.
"I have to have someplace to put people," DeLand said. "In January and February of this year, we had the largest admission of prisoners we've had in the prison's history."
If the population continues to swell, the prison will have to house prisoners in dormitories slated for use as classrooms. Putting prisoners there is a serious security risk, he said.
The prison pays $100,000 a month in overtime pay to guards who must work long hours to patrol the spread-out prison population, DeLand said. If prisoners were double-bunked in the Wasatch Unit, overtime pay would be cut.
DeLand pleaded for that financial relief. "We are $2 million in deficit. The Legislature gave us half that amount and told us to come up with the rest, which won't be possible," he said.
Prison officials sought to have the preliminary injunction lifted only for D block in the Wasatch Unit. But even temporary double-bunking there would require some remodeling, including the addition of showers.
Greene questioned the wisdom of remodeling D block when he may rule against double-bunking in three months, making the remodeling unnecessary.
Attorney Allan Larson estimated the improvement would cost about $25,000. "That's a drop in the bucket frankly," he said.
"Some taxpayers think that's a lot of money," Greene said. "I do."
A federal trial on the constitutionality of double-bunking ended in November. Greene took the question under advisement and has not yet ruled on it. Until he rules, a standing preliminary injunction prohibits double-bunking.
Larson pleaded for a prompt ruling. "We don't have the luxury of waiting. We deserve a prompt ruling. The Corrections Department feels very strongly that we need a ruling on this as quickly as possible."
If Greene rules that double-bunking is unconstitutional, DeLand said he will go to the Legislature and demand more money. He urged Greene to rule before the legislative special session on April 17 so he could ask the Legislature then for more money if he needed it.
U.S. Magistrate Ronald Boyce reviewed the injunction against double-bunking in March and recommended to Greene in a written report that it remain in effect until Greene rules on the case. Greene concurred.
He said that the Wasatch Unit is cramped, dirty and ridden with vermin. Evidence offered by the American Civil Liberties Union suggests the public and the prisoners would be harmed by lifting the injunction.
The preliminary injunction against double-bunking was imposed in 1986 and broadened in 1989, he noted. After a five-year prohibition on double-bunking "another three months won't disturb things," Greene said.
Three months is about how long it will take Boyce to make a recommendation on the constitutionality of double-bunking and Greene to make a final ruling.
Questioned by Greene, DeLand estimated that the prison population will increase by 37 prisoners during that time. "Right now you have 40 empty spaces so I don't think we have an immediate problem," Greene said.