New Utah prison ‘Turning a corner’ after bumpy start

Mar 7, 2023, 5:09 PM | Updated: 5:26 pm
New Utah prison...
After reports of more than 20 assaults on corrections officers since the new prison opened, the Utah Department of Corrections says it is seeing a turnaround in hiring and retention of corrections officers. (Kristin Murphy/Deseret News)
(Kristin Murphy/Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — On paper, everything was outlined for 1.3 million square feet including the design, the processes, and the training. Staff got the pieces in place and prepared the best they could last year, before officially making the move to the new Utah State Correctional Facility.

But it would be hard to predict every detail of how a 1.3 million-square-foot campus would function until it became real life.

Spencer Turley, assistant deputy executive director, said they knew they’d face challenges moving in.

“It’s a new facility. It’s a new design. It’s a different staffing model. It’s entirely new,” he said. “And so, we did everything we could to prepare going in. And clearly, we faced some challenges that we’re working to overcome.”

Just days after the DOC successfully transferred more than 2,400 inmates from the old Draper site to the Utah State Correctional Facility (USCF), a report was filed for an assault on a corrections officer.

It would become the first of at least 23 assaults against corrections officers reported at USCF in the prison’s first several months of operation. The incidents largely involved physical combativeness or violence by inmates or throwing or using objects against officers intended to cause harm.

In some of the worst cases, the inmate attacks sent officers to the hospital bloody and beaten.

The Utah Corrections Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 14 has been vocal about concerns over the incidents, saying that the prison’s design, direct supervision model, understaffing, and other issues have been playing a role.

Things appeared to come to a head in early February after three back-to-back assaults led to significant injuries.

“If things continue to escalate, I’m fearful that you could end up with a fatality, and that would be the worst thing to happen,” Chad Bennion, executive director of the Utah Corrections FOP Lodge 14 said in an interview with KSL TV. “And I don’t want to see that happen, but we’re not doing those things to that are keeping the officers safe.”

Over 20 assaults on officers reported at Utah’s new prison, records request reveals

“Frankly, I think they’re terrible,” Turley said, of the reports. “Not even one assault. Not even one assault is acceptable.”

In one of the assaults, a sergeant working in a section alone was attacked by an inmate with a homemade weapon made from a toothbrush attached to broken razor blades. According to the report, the inmate slashed and punched the sergeant in the face, and other inmates had to jump in to stop the attack until responding officers could get there.

“It was a terrible incident. I went to the hospital and spent some time with that sergeant,” Turley said. He noted that the sergeant came back to work and is now doing well, and in good spirits.

“But we did have four inmates, and frankly, we’re grateful for those inmates, they stepped in, and they pulled the other inmate off,” he said. “And they protected the officer, the sergeant that was there.”

Learning lessons, and making adjustments 

Turley explained that they’ve learned from every assault like the one against the sergeant, making immediate changes where necessary.

“We’ve done after-action reviews. We’ve said, ‘What led to this that we could change so that this never happens again?’ And we’ve literally made small adjustments after virtually every single incident to say, ‘Let’s not do this,’” he said.

After the attack on the lone sergeant, Turley described that how they no longer have officers in areas by themselves. They make sure they’ve got two officers together.

“That’s one of the changes that we’ve made to help prevent these, and ensure that officers always have a cover officer and some backup,” he said.

They’ve also made sure to increase communication, Turley said.

In another incident, an officer ended up locked in a shower in what was described in the report as him being held hostage by an inmate in the maximum-security section.

Turley clarified that it wasn’t a hostage situation in a traditional sense, but “completely unacceptable” nonetheless.

That incident also led to some tweaks, he indicated.

“We gave some new directive to our staff and said, ‘Here’s what happened. And here’s what we would like to see in the future so that this doesn’t happen again.’ And we’ve done things like that, literally every single time to prevent these,” he said.

New Utah prisoin

Inside the new Utah State Prison located in Salt Lake City. (KSL-TV)

In addition to policy and procedural adjustments, Turley said they’ve worked on infrastructure changes as well.

“We have additional cameras that are being installed, we’ve purchased some mirrors that will be installed to help reduce some blind spots that we’ve identified,” he said.

Some changes have been specific to the restrictive housing units, Turley said, as they address safety in the direct supervision model. Under the direct supervision model, officers are stationed in an open setting with inmates.

They met with the executive director and the president of the Utah State Fraternal Order of Police Lodge, Turley said, spending hours going line-by-line over the assaults, looking at what happened, and what the DOC has done to change it.

He said the state FOP has been supportive.

They’ve also held a few focus group meetings with their officers to find out what else they can do, he said, and staff members have offered up suggestions and ideas.

“We’re finding ways to implement their ideas,” Turley said. “It’s an ongoing process. And every day if somebody comes in and says, ‘I think this might help,’ we’re looking at it– and when and where and how we can, we’re making it happen.”

Addressing understaffing and funding 

In December, an AP&P agent from Hurricane described being punched in the back of the head, face, and eye area while working a mandatory overtime shift outside of his normal posting. According to the agent and a corrections officer, an inmate started throwing punches simply because he thought the AP&P agent was laughing at him.

Mandatory overtime because of severe understaffing has become the norm for operations at the new prison—a practice the DOC has acknowledged, and Utah Corrections FOP Lodge 14 executive director Chad Bennion explained doesn’t mesh well with the direct supervision model.

Bennion said it creates instability at the facility because staff from all over the state are being sent to Salt Lake to work assigned shifts at the prison.

“If you’ve got an officer or agent who is just working a post, you’re in an assignment,” Bennion said, in a previous interview with KSL TV. “You don’t know how that interaction with the inmate is going to go, you don’t know what their behaviors are.”

Bennion has been fighting for more funding for hiring and retention, working with legislators each session to secure money.

Last year, the legislature gave the green light on pay raises ahead of the USCF opening. The DOC offered perks and a bonus, to entice new applicants to fill the couple hundred open jobs at the new facility and prevent mandatory overtime.

However nearly a year after making that announcement, the DOC is still struggling to fill the dozens of open positions.

“We absolutely are understaffed,” Turley said. “We need to hire 135 officers to make mandatory overtime go away.”

The DOC has provided numbers that show recruiting efforts are slowly working, as staffing levels begin to rise.

According to the DOC, 87 officers resigned from the agency between February 2022 to July 2022, right before the new facility opened.

In that same time, they only recruited 28 new hires.

Governor, lawmakers to address 3 inmate attacks on guards at Utah prisons

Turley brought up how Governor Spencer Cox worked to provide additional funding beyond what was allotted by the legislature in the 2022 session. That funding went into effect in the form of raises in August, he explained.

Turley said it’s made a difference and that’s backed up by the statistics: The DOC said between August 2022 and February 2023, only 34 officers left the agency. In that same time, they hired 105 officers.

“We’ve really turned the table, we’ve turned the tides in,” Turley said. “We were losing way more than we were than we were hiring, and now it’s the exact opposite. And in large part due to the support of the governor and legislature.”

Also in that same time, the DOC said 25 officers who left the agency returned after Governor Cox sent a letter inviting each one of them back.

Turley said they recently started an academy with two dozen new hires who will work as corrections officers at USCF.

“There’s a light in the tunnel for this mandatory overtime to go away. And that literally things will just continue to improve from here,” he said. “We’ve had some bumps in the road. We want to overcome them.”

Turley said they don’t want to see any more staff assaults or inmate-on-inmate assaults, and they want to do everything they can to eliminate or reduce them.

“We’re turning a corner,” he said, adding, “and frankly, we’re excited about it.”

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New Utah prison ‘Turning a corner’ after bumpy start