The idea of prison relocation is like Christmas fruitcake: no one really wants it, but it keeps making the rounds every once in a while. And each time, relocation turns out to be unfeasible and too costly to the taxpayers.
But in 2011 that didn’t deter Al Mansell, former Utah Senate president and Realtors president, and others from trying to see how they might bypass the state’s competitive bidding process to move the prison for private development of the land.
Soon after, state Rep. Greg Hughes, also in real estate and property development and representative of Draper, introduced HB445 to "relocate the state prison to another suitable location in the state in order to allow private development of the land on which the state prison is presently located ."
Up front, it was clear the move was to help private developers. There was no compelling reason given that moving the prison served a public purpose. Nevertheless, taxpayers could get stuck with a $460 million tab, according to one of several studies requested by the state done in 2005 by the Wikstrom Economic and Planning Consultants that found the move would be too costly. Only one legislator asked how much it would cost. There was no answer and the bill moved on.
It’s a sad day when people have to fight their own government, but that’s what folks from Eagle Mountain and other targeted sites are doing to stop legislators from relocating the prison to their areas. No prison sites were selected in Davis County, though it had sites that seemed to meet the criteria. Nevertheless, legislators are charging ahead to move the prison for private developers, of whom some are legislators. Citizens in Eagle Mountain even voted to budget for a legal fight against the state. These are the same legislators who keep complaining about big government takeover yet seem to have no qualms about imposing their will on local communities for private developers.
Lawmakers gave no serious thought to what might be the public’s safety needs 50 years in the future or what policies might be adopted that would influence the kind of lockup facilities that would be needed — fix things at the front end, not the back end. Studies should have focused first on prevention and suppression of crime. Legislators define what is a crime and its consequences. Courts determine disposition of cases. Efforts should be on diversion and rehabilitation in communities. Legislators seemed to show no empathy for how the move would disrupt the lives of families or how it would affect the economies of other communities. Even the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ) in its report to the governor only looked at fixing things in or after prison.
The relocation committee said the people’s voices only count 15 percent. And that may be the whole problem. Lawmakers today don’t appear to care about working for the public good, only what’s in their self-interest. They decided to relocate the prison for private developers without any serious study or public debate to see if there was a compelling public interest to do so. It looks as if, in today’s political environment, taxpayers’ voices don’t count. My late friend Alex Hurtado, who was a loyal Republican, once said about the Golden Rule: “He who has the gold makes the rules.” I guess folks in Eagle Mountain have it right: we do have to fight our own government.
Hopefully, our legislators will have the courage and humility to say maybe moving the prison was a nutty idea from the start.
Utah native John Florez served on the U.S. Senate Labor Committee and as Utah industrial commissioner. His White House appointments included deputy assistant secretary of labor and Commission on Hispanic Education member. Email: [email protected]