DRAPER — Utah is squarely in the midst of a statewide debate over whether and where to relocate the Utah State Prison at the Point of the Mountain.
It is a complicated political and administrative issue that deserves to be viewed from many vantage points. What’s positive is that the state is in fact undertaking a healthy public process surrounding relocation.
Almost everyone agrees that the decision about what to do should not be primarily about the dollar impact upon the state budget, or how it will impact local or regional economic development — but upon how it would impact, and hopefully improve, the state's criminal justice system.
In other words, whether and where to move the prison should be primarily driven by how it will affect the rehabilitation of inmates.
And by and large, advocates for prisoners — and former prisoners interviewed for these columns — are pleased that it appears a new prison likely will be built somewhere other than its current location in Draper.
"We definitely accept that we need a new prison," said Jean Hill of the Catholic Diocese. She believes that much of the public has a stereotype of prisons as a place where convicts are placed in isolation from society.
On the contrary, she said, "94 percent of them will ultimately be released." Hence we need to ensure adequate programs for rehabilitation "if we want them to be capable of coming into our neighborhoods."
Andrew Riggle of the Disability Law Center was equally praiseworthy of the process. It’s been driven by the state Legislature’s Prison Relocation Commission, which has identified four potential sites, each within 30 miles of the existing correctional facility.
"A state normally would just procure the land and decide to build," he said. "They decided in this instance to make it a public process, and a more or less transparent discussion."
Although the PRC had expected to decide in August among the four potential sites — west of the airport in Salt Lake City, Grantsville in Tooele County, and two Utah County locations near Eagle Mountain — last week the commission pushed its deadline back to September or October.
Much of the recent public discussion has been driven by critics who live near the potential new facilities.
But from the perspective of prisoners, former prisoners and their advocates, the current facility is so decrepit and inadequate, it cries out for change. And consultants to the PRC insist — in a report released last week at the commission's July meeting — that there is not enough vacant land at the Draper facility to build a new prison from scratch.
One former inmate is Stevoni Doyle. She spent 15 months at the prison here, beginning in 2005, for drug offenses as well as check fraud and credit card fraud driven by her drug habit. But she lapsed into old habits following her release. Those new crimes led a federal judge to sentence her to federal prison in Phoenix for a year.
"It was one of the best years of my life," Doyle says now, referring to her time in federal prison. "I grew, and I took responsibility for my actions."
But she also attributes her rehabilitation to the lower-security nature of the Phoenix prison, its absence of fences and opportunities for greater autonomy — as well as the strength of mental health counseling to address her drug addiction.
She notes that the Draper prison "has bars on windows. Prison isn't just a place where you lock people. There needs to be more focus on getting better in all aspects." Doyle notes helpfully that "if you are going to go to prison, go to federal prison."
Daniel Thompson's experience was similar. He got mixed up with drugs and thefts to support his habit in high school. "The first couple of times I got in trouble, the court slaps you on the wrist," he said. He nominally attended drug treatment, but he said those programs didn't change his behavior.
After having repeated trouble with the law, he was sentenced to four years in the state penitentiary at Draper. He went from facility to facility at the site, some of which he described as harrowing: There was non-stop noise from other cells from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.; there were toilets so old they appeared to be painted over 70 times, barely flushed, and looked to be from a World War II submarine.
"In a way, the horrible conditions made me never want to go back," says Thompson. "But at the same time, it made me feel that I was just neglected — that someone doesn't care, and that we are being mistreated.
"We do deserve to be treated as human," he says.
Next week: The impact of a potential prison move upon more than 1,200 statewide volunteers.