Will New Prison Help Shape Utah’s Criminal Justice Reform Efforts?
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – In August 2017, Utah leaders broke ground on the new Utah State Correctional Facility just west of Salt Lake City International Airport. Fast forward two years and crews are now digging out foundations, installing utility lines, pouring concrete exterior walls and lifting them in place after an incredibly west winter and spring.
“We had a little bit of a rough start on the men’s max (maximum security facility) because of a lot of rain,” explained Michael Ambre, Assistant Director of the state Division of Facilities Construction and Management. “The groundwater was high, so that slowed things down. We have caught back up and the water table has receded. And, that’s helping the other buildings move along as planned.”
When completed, the new prison will have 30 buildings. The cells are assembled offsite at a facility in Ogden – complete with beds, plumbing and paint. Then, they are trucked into the site and placed into place by cranes.
If all goes as planned, construction should wrap early 2022 with inmates arriving from the old prison in Draper that summer. When they do, they will find prison life here very different.
“We’re going to eight-man cells,” said Steven Turley, Division Director of Prison Projects for the Utah Department of Corrections. “So, eight people will be inside that cell.”
Cells for Draper’s general prison population only hold two inmates. The same will hold true for the new facility’s maximum-security cells but many of the new general population cells will have eight beds.
“There’s a box with the bathroom facilities, table facilities and then we’re also going to have a cubicle-type setting where each inmate will have his own cubicle which give it a little bit more of a house feeling,” explained Turley.
Turley said what makes this layout safe and efficient is that corrections officers will be inside each housing unit. At the Draper prison, they are mostly stationed inside towers and outside the population, and have minimal contact with inmates.
“They (corrections officers) have access and sightline to all the yards which increases security. The only tower you’ll see operates the gates coming in and out of the (new) prison,” Turley explained. “The sightline is such that you don’t need towers. And (surveillance) technology allows us to do that.”
In the new prison, general population inmates will spend a lot of their time in common areas, with corrections officers continuously watching and directly interacting with them. Turley said the constant, healthy communication will build relationships not based on fear or hate.
“The inmates feel safer. The staff likes it,” Turley elaborated. “Inmates are more proactive to do what they should do, because the staff is in there with them all the time. So, it just creates a safer, a whole safer environment.”
To control rising construction costs, state officials reduced the number of beds at the new prison from 4,000 down to 3,600. But, that poses a problem. As of June, the state had fewer than 200 beds left for prison inmates, system-wide. If inmate growth keeps its current pace, Utah will have no room left even after the new prison opens.
“I understand the wisdom and how it was designed,” said Marshall Thompson of the Utah Sentencing Commission about the new prison. “And, I really hope it works.”
Thompson said he understands the fiscal realities but remains deeply concerned over the prospect of running out of beds.
“I wish it was twice as big and we could seal off different (cell) pods and just use them as needed,” he said.
“I’ll tell you right now, do we had 4,000? (beds),” Turley said as he shook his head affirmatively. “We have 3,600 and we’re going to make that work.”
Turley said beds can be added in the future but right now, the big focus of the new prison is to keep inmates from coming back.
“This design has more (therapeutic) programming space. So, programmed space has been really thought out in this facility and at the old facility (Draper) it is kind of haphazard,” he added.
At the new facility, separate buildings away from a rowdy general population will house treatment programs for sex offenders and drug abusers and numerous education programs for life after prison.
“Everything is well thought out to help develop the skills that are going to give them what they need to reintegrate into society,” Turley explained.
And, while women will be housed separately at the new prison, he insisted they will not be denied any resource.
“We’re very different from most states, probably just a handful of states have women with men,” Turley explained. “The women inmates have all the same programs, medical care and everything the men do.”
A recent RAND Corporation analysis found inmates who take part in any education program are 28% less likely to wind up behind bars again, than those who do not participate. That can go a long way in closing Utah’s revolving prison door.
“If we parole an inmate that quite hasn’t got all the tools, he is going to re-offend,” said Turley.
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