The state Department of Corrections has immediate plans to expand its Central Utah facility and is quietly looking at building another prison along the Wasatch Front.
Utahns seem to support that action but also think lawmakers should give more money to treatments that could ease prison overcrowding, according to a recent poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates.
Clearly Utah corrections officials have to do something.
The prison is growing by 240 prisoners a year, which officials say is not a reflection of increased crime as much as population growth. High rates of recidivism among Utah parolees also factor strongly into prison growth.
And emergency measures such as double-bunking have ballooned the prison population well beyond capacity.
But Utahns appear to overwhelmingly favor prison expansion to the controversial shipping of prison inmates to county jails to ease crowded cell blocks.
According to the survey of 411 Utahns statewide, 77 percent favor expanding the prisons in Draper and Gunnison rather than sending inmates to county jails. Only 15 percent opposed expansions.
Also, 77 percent of those surveyed would support the Utah Legislature increasing funds to enlarge the prisons as well as to provide more drug and sex offender treatment. Sixteen percent oppose the idea.
Meanwhile, corrections officials recently hired a consulting firm to identify a third site for a medium and maximum security prison in line with the Draper and Gunnison facilities. The inquiry is part of a 10-year correction department plan and will include a study of expansion at the Draper prison, corrections director Tom Patterson said last week.
A new prison would be "fairly close" to the Wasatch Front, Patterson said. He mentioned Rush Valley in Tooele County and west of the Salt Lake County landfill as possible locations.
Officials must consider transportation costs, proximity to treatment providers, the pool of volunteers nearby and accessibility for offenders' families, Patterson said.
Several other state plans are in play to deal with the growing and changing inmate population and all cost millions.
Building prison space enough to meet the growth is implausible, said Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, a longtime watchdog over corrections. "That's an $80 million prison every two years."
But Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. included construction of a $77.3 million, 480-bed facility at Gunnison in his proposed 2008-09 state budget released last week. It also contains $1.2 million for sex offender treatment, a program that has usually operated on about $700,000 a year since 1996.
Prison officials estimate 80 percent to 85 percent of state state's 5,600 inmates have drug problems. About 30 percent of inmates have committed sex crimes, an unprecedented high.
Patterson said more treatment dollars would equate to earlier releases. And sex offenders without treatment tend to spend longer in prison than those who commit other crimes.
Prison drug treatment programs did not fare as well in the budget, though prison ward Steve Turley said it has been proven that money directed to structured drug treatment is well-spent every dollar spent on the prison's intensive Conquest program saves the taxpayer $7.
Utahns also disapprove of state corrections shipping inmates to county jails to serve their prison sentences.
The Jones poll shows 49 percent of residents somewhat or definitely disapprove of the practice that dates back 20 years to relieve crowded cell blocks. According to the survey, 40 percent of Utahns approve.
The uneasiness about relocating state inmates likely arises from escapes this fall from two county jails.
In September, convicted murderers Danny Gallegos and Juan Diaz-Arevalo slipped out of an unlocked door and over a razor-wire fence in Daggett County. They were apprehended six days later. In October, a convicted rapist and kidnapper went over the fence in Beaver County before being captured seven hours later.The Corrections Department spends about $30 million a year on contracts with jails in 21 counties for space to house more than 1,500 prisoners. It pulled most first-degree felons back to prison in response to the escapes. The department implemented new policies and procedures after evaluating the jails.