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Utah State Prison: How Far Is Too Far?

Panel weighs how far is too far from urban Salt Lake County to relocate the Utah State Prison


The Utah State Prison, in Draper - ERIC S. PETERSON
  • Eric S. Peterson
  • The Utah State Prison, in Draper

In May 2013, the Prison Relocation & Authority Development Board got new membership and a new mandate. While a previous board wanted to just collect information on the costs and benefits of moving the Utah State Prison—currently located in Draper in Salt Lake County—the new board will take proposals from companies on relocation of the prison and redevelopment of the land underneath it.

New PRADA board member Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, knows the issue is a big one and remembers meeting with a constituent who pitched him on a foolproof site for the new prison. The constituent’s proposed location to relocate nearly 4,000 Utah inmates? An abandoned mine on his property.

“He was dead serious,” says Hutchings, who recalls the man touting the mine as a very “secure” facility with only one way in and one way out. “Yeah, I’m sure that wouldn’t bug the ACLU at all,” he says with a chuckle.

Hutchings mentions the story because he’s excited about the opportunity of prison relocation. It’s finally, he says, an opportunity for policymakers to treat the Utah Department of Corrections not as a way of warehousing (or mine-shafting) offenders out of sight and out of mind, only to have them re-offend and get cycled through the justice system over and over again.

For Hutchings, this means an emphasis on programming, drug treatment and other services that can help reduce recidivism and make Corrections actually about correcting inmates’ behaviors before they’re released back into society. He, along with other board members, face a challenge in weighing where to relocate the prison in such a way that it’s close to volunteers and other services to aid in rehabilitation without being too close to the urban core of Salt Lake County.

That’s why several lawmakers on the previous and current PRADA boards have been intrigued by the idea of relocating the prison to land in Tooele County. Several sites there, including Rush Valley, could offer a short commute to Salt Lake City. Several sites there also have the benefit of being located on state-trust lands, meaning that if the state purchased 400 to 500 acres for the site of a new prison, the sale receipts of up to $5 million could go into the permanent State School Fund. The interest earned on that fund goes directly into Utah education; interest disbursed in fiscal year 2011-12 put $30 million into education funding, according to a spokeswoman for the State Institutional Trust Lands Association.

The new PRADA board, which includes Draper City and Salt Lake County officials as well as legislators, has only just begun studying the issue, with new members being appointed in May. While it’s likely that the prison will be relocated out of Salt Lake County, the question is, how far is too far away? Several rural counties are pitching the PRADA board on the idea of expanding inmate populations at rural-county jail facilities.

“But you don’t want to be out in the middle of nowhere,” Hutchings says. When it comes to working at rehabilitating inmate populations, he points out, they may need supportive communities nearby and access to good medical services, including mental-health services.

Transportation costs for medical visits to the University of Utah hospital and visits to court in Salt Lake City are also major considerations. Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, a member of the first PRADA board, had previously supported the idea of considering trust lands near Tooele, part of the area he represents, because of it being close to Salt Lake City.

“It’s just on the other side of the mountain, but it’s still roughly the same travel time [as the current Draper site] to get to the courthouse or the university medical center,” Thatcher says. “Also it’s close enough to Salt Lake to keep drawing on the almost 5,000 [people] that currently volunteer at Draper.”

Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, a previous PRADA member, also likes the idea of a Tooele site, and even noted the U.S. Army’s now-inactive munitions depot in Tooele as a possible purchase.

“It’s got all the utilities in it already,” Jenkins says of the old army site.

Hutchings is keeping his options open as he and the rest of the committee dive into the issue more this summer. Whatever the outcome, he hopes the focus of the process can be steered more toward reforming inmates than redeveloping the old Draper site.

“This is our shot—whatever the decision is—this is our chance to get it right,” Hutchings says. “Hopefully, the public will join us in seeing that this isn’t really about the land, this is about Corrections, and doing it right.”