Brian Nicholson, Deseret News
The Prison Relocation and Development Authority board has decided to request bids from developers in advance of making recommendations as to if, when or where the prison should be moved.

There may be some logic in soliciting bids for moving the Utah State Prison before the decision is made whether to move it or not, but there is also a feeling the state is putting the "cart before the horse."

The Prison Relocation and Development Authority board has decided to request bids from developers in advance of making recommendations as to if, when or where the prison should be moved. Without a list of specific locations that might host a future prison, it's unclear how those bids can reflect a true cost-benefit analysis.

It makes sense to try to gather information about the value of the land and its potential use as part of the decision-making process. But the sequence put in place by the board makes it look as if its top priority isn't determining what's in the best interest of the state's flagship correctional institution, but what kind of commercial boon private developers might be able to harvest from a relocation.

Since there is no agreed upon site for a new facility, any bids the board receives are likely to be focused mainly on development of the 700 acres of prison land now surrounded by large scale corporate development and burgeoning suburbs. The value and future use of the land are important questions, but they aren't the only questions.

What this process needs, and has needed for some time, is a thoughtful, thorough and independent analysis of the future needs of the corrections department. It should be a blue-sky investigation that contemplates changes in correctional philosophy as well as projected rates of growth in the inmate population. It should also take into account the proximity to population centers, courthouses and other facilities critical to the prison's mission.

Perhaps most important of all, it should consider the priceless contributions of prison volunteers at the current location, especially those who provide religious services, instruction and counseling. Any new location must be in close enough proximity of a similar volunteer community. Otherwise, costs are bound to rise, even as the quality of the prison's rehabilitative services diminishes.

Proximity to the Wasatch Front also provides important access for families of inmates, whose support is key to inmate behavior and treatment.

Then, the value of the vacated land becomes relevant as a source of revenue to support the move. As it stands now, it looks as if the board's thought process is thus: "We should move the prison. We can get this much for the land, so that's how much we'll spend on a new prison." At this point, we haven't seen adequate detail validating the predicate "we should move the prison."

Given its location and the nature of the development around it, the prison seems destined to be moved, somewhere, someday. That day may be soon, but it can't come before the state knows the "where." Typically, the first step in moving a big facility is determining where it might be moved, and that process involves extensive site surveys and analysis of the pros and cons of specific prospective locations. A study on what will be done with the vacated land might logically be ordered in tandem with a new site selection process, but why should it happen first?

The overarching question of just what kind of prison Utah should build, and where, hasn't yet gained traction as the kind of public discussion it needs to be, with considerable citizen input.

It should be pointed out that developers are not accustomed to making bids on projects that have yet to be approved. Generally speaking, they like to make bids they think they may actually win. It will be interesting and instructive to see what kinds of bids are proffered, but it is in the best interests of the relocation board not to act as if the decision to move the prison and turn its land over to private developers is a fait accompli.