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Prison Follies

The real reason for moving the Utah State Prison is money, and lots of it



It appears that a deal is being cooked up to move the Utah State Prison from Draper (where it was relocated to in 1951) to somewhere else—perhaps even closer to me. I call NIMBY. The Draper prison is just fine where it is. Sure, the politicians and developers will tell you that it's no longer modern or safe, or that it's overcrowded, because why move an otherwise sound operation if that weren't the case?

They can't tell you the real reason for the move—money, and lots of it—because that would require telling the truth.

I live in Murray and seldom drive south of there. Therefore, I only see the prison if my travel passport is in order and I have business in Utah County. It looks just as it always has—cold and menacing—just what prisons are meant to look like.

I've only been inside once, on a high-school field trip. That a prisoner slid a license plate up my buddy Jeff Tibolla's shirt to move it past a security guard seemed exotic, not dangerous. Yeah, Jeff got caught. I've had old friends call the prison home, and I've made friends of others who once resided there. I hope they were treated well while incarcerated, because we are a caring and forgiving society, right? But, heck, none of them I knew or know ever said that the Utah Pen was San Quentin reincarnate. Or Alcatraz. Or Rikers Island. It seems to be about right, I guess. Bad, but not horrible. Good, but not great. Just a place to kill time until one is released or paroled. A place to look out the windows or yards, and torture oneself by thinking, "Geez, wouldn't this be a heckuva a place for a waterpark, some condos and a business center?"

That's what some folks are thinking. They want to tear the current prison down and move it downstream, where the water is already dirty, yet far enough away that no one will do anything about it for another 50 or 60 years—same as occurred in Draper. Draper and nearby Bluffdale were as remote as one could get and still be in the Salt Lake Valley back in 1951. These days, the valley—Salt Lake County—is all but filled in. Yet among the final destinations for a new prison are locations in Salt Lake Valley that are barely less remote than where the prison sits now. In other words, they want to move it, make lots of money, then die rich and leave whatever problems arise for the next generation.

The Draper prison moved south when the Sugar House prison was closed. This proposed move ostensibly hinges on the Draper prison sitting on valuable property that is ripe for developing, this being a great time for inexpensive construction and—oh yeah—it's old. Sugar House is booming now—but so is everywhere else in the valley. Moving it within Salt Lake County makes no sense at all and only postpones the inevitable—having to move it again sooner than later. That leaves only two choices—leave it right where it is, or move it to outside of Salt Lake County. Like those in Salt Lake County, the residents near proposed locations in other counties like their backyards just fine and dandy the way they are. Not to mention the families of the incarcerated don't like the inconvenience—or inhumanity—of traveling great distances to see loved ones.

Really, the moving-the-prison idea just stinks. If construction costs are low, then modification costs at the current location would also be low. Just fix the damned thing. And while the prison may never win an architectural-design contest, no one can argue it hasn't been effective on at least two fronts: Can you name the last time anyone escaped from there? And, it marks the perfect merger between Utah's two greatest crime centers—the big, bad, city dwellers of Salt Lake County and points north, and the holier-than-thou white-collar criminals who ply their trade in Utah County. Both counties get a toss-up point for methamphetamine production and heroin use.

Prisons aren't supposed to be hidden. They are supposed to remind us that if you mess up, you may end up with barbed wire for curtains. Moving the prison is a money play, nothing more. A better benefit to all of us would be to take the prison redevlopment money and give a piece of it to each of the proposed sites and develop six places for the price of one.

However, I'd bet the prison does move in another year or two or three, since money seldom loses when it comes to Utah politics. I just hope that if the prison moves, that Utah does the right thing and requires the developer to name the new parks and structures for the folks who once lived there—the Gary Gilmore firing range, the Ted Bundy psychiatric center, the Mark Hofmann school of fine arts, the Warren Jeffs bungalows, and the Frances Berenice Schreuder assisted-living facility.

The politicians whose pockets will be criminally lined with the filthy lucre of passing the buck(s) onto our children's children should also be recognized. That's the way they did it in ancient Greece, you know. The statues marking the entrance to the original Olympic Stadium were not of that era's equivalent of Derek Jeter—they were statues of the men and women who were caught cheating. A-Rod, then. The permanently scorned. If we hurry, a new youth soccer field (all greedy development projects include a decent soccer field to soften the blow) could be named for either Mark Shurtleff or John Swallow.

So, who are the current politicians who are backing this idea? Let's worship them properly with a monument. Let them live on in our memory forever—right there with Mark and John and Gary and Ted and ...

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