Assault against corrections officer brings up safety concerns at new state prison

Feb 1, 2023, 4:55 PM | Updated: 5:04 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Concerns are arising over safety at the new Utah state prison after the Department of Corrections confirmed an inmate attacked an officer and sent them to the hospital. The concerns are sparking discussions on Capitol Hill, between corrections officers advocates and lawmakers.

Opening last summer with a state-of-the-art design and the newest technology, the Utah State Correctional Facility promised a better, safer experience for everyone — including corrections officers.

But the new prison is experiencing problems if you ask Chad Bennion, executive director of the Utah Corrections Lodge 14 of the Utah Fraternal Order of Police.

“There are some serious weaknesses with the plan, which has led to some of these incidents occurring,” Bennion said.

The “incidents” he’s referring to include a Jan. 30 attack on a corrections officer.

“On Monday afternoon, Jan. 30, 2023, a correctional officer was assaulted in the Antelope (restricted) housing unit at the Utah State Correctional Facility,” the Department of Corrections confirmed in an email. “The officer was treated at a nearby hospital and was released later that evening. The name of the officer is not being disclosed. The incident is currently under investigation by the UDC’s Law Enforcement Bureau for potential charges against the incarcerated individual.”

That’s just the latest assault, Bennion indicated. He spoke about another one he said happened just 10 days prior to the Jan. 30 incident.

“I’ve actually seen the video. It happened in the mental health unit. And the inmate comes around from behind the officer, who is sitting at a desk in one of the direct supervision areas, and the officer doesn’t even see it coming,” Bennion recounted. “And he wrestles and struggles with the inmate for 50 seconds approximately, before anyone can get to him to assist.”

He said that officer also went to the hospital with injuries.

From his understanding, Bennion said the Jan. 30 situation also involved an attack from a blind spot that the officer didn’t see coming.

The Department of Corrections could not confirm the Jan. 20 incident Tuesday, or any other incidents outside of what happened Jan. 30, saying that the person who could answer those questions was out of the office.

KSL TV has submitted records requests in regards to those incidents and any other attacks on corrections officers since the opening of the new prison.

Bennion explained that the design of the new prison, with what he said is called the “direct supervision” model, requires more staff and is more labor intensive than the Draper prison. They have a lot of cameras that Bennion said officers can’t visually check like they could at the Draper prison.

The lack of staffing at the new prison, Bennion argues, is creating those blind spots and weak points.

“We have some serious issues right now with regards to safety, because the current facility has about one-third of the staff that it really needs,” Bennion said. “And so, that’s why we’re working with legislative leaders to try to resolve that.”

Bennion said he met with Sen. Jerry Stevenson Tuesday night at the state Capitol to talk about the issues and how to move forward. He said they’ve presented a plan to legislative leaders on the Executive Appropriations Committee, including committee chair Stevenson.

They’re asking the legislature to set aside $42 million for corrections officer hiring and retention.

“Without doing that, this problem is going to continue, and you’re going to have greater incidents of violence, and these safety concerns will go on,” Bennion said.

He worries they’re at a critical point if something isn’t done soon.

“The morale issues at the facilities and that are down because of these experiences, and word travels fast,” Bennion said. “People don’t want to be in a position where their lives are in danger.”

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Assault against corrections officer brings up safety concerns at new state prison