KSL INVESTIGATES

New Prison, New Problems: Inside the effort to staff Utah’s new $1 billion prison facility

Feb 28, 2024, 11:37 PM | Updated: Feb 29, 2024, 6:21 am

SALT LAKE CITY — “I’ve always wanted to be a part of law enforcement,” Miriniza Fulk, a Utah Department of Corrections employee, told the KSL Investigators.

Outside of Utah, she said she was discouraged from applying.

“Because I’m a woman,” she explained, “and I’m small.”

Here in Utah, Fulk saw an ad for recruitment by the Utah Department of Corrections and decided to go for it. Now, she plays a critical role in keeping Utah’s new prison functioning.

two women sit at a table with an officer

Corrections officer Miriniza Fulk interacts with women incarcerated at the Utah State Correctional Facility in January 2024. (Ken Fall, KSL TV)

“It is draining. It is tiring,” she said. “We’re patiently waiting for more staff to come in. Until then, we just have to do what we can and keep our buildings running.”

Currently, keeping buildings at Utah’s new prison running requires officers like Fulk to wear multiple hats and pick up mandatory overtime shifts. The buildings require more staff to run properly than those at the old Draper prison.

That’s because Utah’s new $1 billion facility was designed and built around what’s called a direct supervision model — it places guards inside the living areas with inmates, as well as roving guards in the halls and additional staff in a control room above.

But some cells are sitting empty. For example, the women’s maximum-security unit is not occupied. Partly due to the low population that would use it, and due to lack of staffing.

empty rooms and common area at the Utah State prison

A maximum security housing unit for women sits empty at Utah’s new prison in January 2024. (Ken Fall, KSL TV)

A scathing legislative audit found despite knowing about a recruitment and retention problem years in advance, prior corrections administrators failed to plan accordingly.

Dangerously low staffing

“This is a problem that they knew about back in 2014,” Deputy Auditor General Brian Dean told lawmakers during a legislative hearing last month.

He said auditors found failures to address staffing challenges and implement a recruitment and retention strategy concerning, especially ahead of a move to the new facility requiring even more staff.

“They continued operating the same way hoping for a different result,” Dean said.

A legislative audit found prior corrections administrators failed to properly address a known staffing issue. (KSL TV graphic)

The KSL Investigators uncovered and exposed several incidents of violence at the old Draper prison. In 2022, corrections officials said they hoped the new facility’s layout and the direct supervision model would help cut down on violence.

But data shows assaults on staff spiked following the move to the new prison that same year. In one incident, Dean told lawmakers an inmate attacked a guard who was working in an area alone.

“This assault really became almost life threatening,” he said. “The officer was handcuffed, and it was clearly visible on camera.”

But no other staffers were there to see it and intervene, and the assault went on for two minutes, Dean said. It’s an example, according to auditors, of how the direct supervision model becomes dangerous when there’s not enough people to carry it out properly.

“The design in and of itself can work with adequate staffing,” Dean said.

Recruitment and Retention

Reaching an adequate number of staff is the department’s biggest challenge at the new facility, according to Deputy Executive Director Jared Garcia. He joined the Department of Corrections after Executive Director Brian Redd was appointed to the top role in May 2023.

Deputy executive director Jared Garcia participates in an interview with the KSL Investigators in January 2024. (Ken Fall, KSL TV)

“We absolutely need to continue to recruit people, retain them, and build a culture that people want to stay here,” Garcia said.

He sat down with the KSL Investigators at the new prison to share what the new administration is doing to address safety and staffing concerns.

“We’re not looking backwards, we’re looking forwards,” he said.

Garcia was careful to not disparage prior leadership, but said they’re doing things differently now, and the data suggests it’s working. Assaults on staff are now trending down.

(KSL TV)

“I would say from the point where the audit occurred to where we are today, there is a night-and-day difference,” Garcia said.

The department ended 2022 with a net loss of 66 staff members, but ended 2023 with a net gain of 160. And as new recruits join the department, the turnover rate is going down.

prison staffing data

(KSL TV)

Corrections officials credit a significant boost in funding from the Legislature last year, allowing the department to increase starting pay from just over $20 an hour to over $28.

“There aren’t too many professions where you can leave high school and make you know, close to $29 an hour,” Garcia said. “If you start this career when you’re 19 years old, you can literally retire when you’re 44. With a pension.”

Garcia also noted a culture shift that he said starts at the top, with leaders willing to innovate and listen to proposed solutions from employees.

“I think there was potentially a culture here where those ideas would get shut down in the past, and we’re at quite the opposite,” he said. “We are encouraging those to get passed up to us.”

Looking forward

Garcia said they’re still not able to properly implement direct supervision throughout the new prison, but they’re working with what he called a “modified” version. The audit notes, the modified version still carries greater risk than a direct supervision model implemented to fidelity.

When asked whether he worries about corrections officers and their safety given the current staffing situation, Garcia said, “100%.”

“As a leader in law enforcement, that’s always been my concern,” he said. “I don’t want to lose someone under my watch. None of us do. And so, it is why it is one of our top, highest priorities is to continue to recruit.”

corrections officers in a room

Corrections officers working inside the Utah State Correctional Facility in January 2024. (Ken Fall, KSL TV)

Learning to run a new facility with its own new problems has been challenging for officers like Fulk.

“Everything is completely different from Draper to here,” she said.

But, Fulk said she loves her job.

“I come in with a positive attitude every day and a positive attitude is just as infectious as a negative one,” she said. And she looks forward to the day the work is shared among a full staff.

Garcia said if the department continues to make progress with hiring as it is now, they’ll be fully staffed at some point in 2025.


Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at investigates@ksl.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.

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New Prison, New Problems: Inside the effort to staff Utah’s new $1 billion prison facility