A new Utah State Prison has been in the news lately, as a replacement prison is being planned for the northwest quadrant of Salt Lake City. And Salt Lake County residents have always seemed to favor a prison “way out of town.”
According to the Salt Lake Telegram of March 12, 1951, when the first prison in the territory was constructed in 1849, it was located at 1400 East and 2100 South, or “way out of town.”
The Telegram story provides a very abbreviated prison history and stated that just over two years after settling in the Salt Lake Valley, residents were surprised to find they needed a prison. This may have come after a ’49er on the way to California robbed a pioneer family of food and money.
(Prior to the prison, the most often-used penalty for stealing, for example, was a $10 fine or 10 lashes. Cattle or other stock trespassing by emigrants headed to California was another common crime in Salt Lake’s early years.)
With 18-foot-high walls, this first prison was described as resembling an adobe Spanish fortress. This Utah Territorial Prison was built in stages over five years. It was located in Sugar House.
A BYU thesis on the history of Utah’s prisons, by James B. Hill, reveals a complicated history. It says that the prison at Sugar House may not have been started until at least 1854. And, in the 1870s, Antelope Island and Fremont Island were seriously considered as future prison locations, since they were surrounded by Great Salt Lake water. The thesis, titled "History of Utah State Prison, 1850-1952" is online at scholarsarchive.byu.edu.
The Telegram account says that the Sugar House prison, at times called the Utah Penitentiary, had begun to crumble by 1885, some 36 years after opening. So a new federally operated state prison was made of brick, at the same site, to house up to 284 men.
In the early 1900s, prison inmates made saddle niches, brushes, shoes and knitting. By 1908, inmates were also working on local road construction. Yet it would not be until 1920 that electric lighting was installed in the Sugar House Prison.
By 1935, the prison had its own farm, and 75 percent of the meats and vegetables consumed by prisoners were raised by prisoners. One trusted inmate also often pushed a cart of prison-grown vegetables downtown and sold them at a profit for the prison.
As early as 1934, R.E. Davis, state prison warden, had urged moving the prison to a larger, 700 to 1,000 acre site, suitable for farming. The Telegram of Oct. 31, 1934, said the warden felt the lack of enough farming jobs for inmates meant because of their idleness, they returned to society in worse shape than when they were incarcerated.
“Point of Mountain New Penitentiary Site” was an Oct. 21, 1938, headline in the Rich County Reaper newspaper. The story stated that 848 acres were purchased near the Point of the Mountain for $48,920. This site was chosen over two locations in Box Elder County and one north of the Salt Lake Airport (perhaps not far from the new prison site today). Proximity to the state’s population, as well as excellent farmland, were the main reasons for the Draper selection.
The Murray Eagle newspaper of Nov. 11, 1943, reported on a visit by the Murray Lions Club to the new Draper prison site. It stated that despite wartime handicaps, prisoners had raised 600 tons of hay, had a herd of 118 cows, hundreds of turkeys and had installed underground pipe and dug irrigation ditches.2 comments on this story
The Sugar House State Prison was fully closed in 1951 and the Draper facility was then in full operation. The former prison site is where Highland High School and Sugarhouse Park are located today.
However, the Sugar House Prison is not to be confused with the “City Prison,” mentioned in the Deseret News of Oct. 5, 1859. This stone prison was originally built to mostly contain drunks, often “high toned” or respectable gentlemen, who were intoxicated.
The Deseret News of Dec. 18, 1867, also mentioned a “new city prison,” being erected at the rear of City Hall (120 E. 100 South), for $30,000.