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Panel says moving Utah's prison looks economically promising

Published December 17, 2012 10:03 pm

Costs • Reduced staff, increased tax revenue expected to offset the construction expenses.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The cost of building a modern, efficient prison facility would be offset by reduced labor expenses, income from selling the current Utah State Prison property, and tax revenue generated by commercial developments and private-sector jobs, the Prison Relocation Authority Committee decided Monday.

The committee voted unanimously — Tom Patterson, outgoing corrections director, abstained — to recommend to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and the state Legislature that they "actively pursue solutions to relocating the Utah State Prison." That would include such next steps as recommissioning the authority with power to both request proposals and award a contract to build a new prison and tear down the old one.

"We think there was enough information that would warrant this, so we're moving forward," said Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, who would work with Rep. Brad R. Wilson, R-Kaysville, to draft legislation to present to lawmakers in the coming session — if Herbert accepts the recommendation.

The 2011 Legislature authorized the committee to take a preliminary look at the pros and cons of moving the prison. That mandate gave the committee — comprised of lawmakers, city representatives, political and business leaders — until July 2014 to come up with a bid proposal and recommendation.

The state's main prison sits on about 700 acres in Draper along Interstate 15 near the Point of the Mountain, a site it has occupied since 1951, when a facility in Sugar House was closed because of encroaching neighborhoods. Highland High School is on that former location today.

Growth occurring around the prison is once again driving interest in moving it, Jenkins said.

The main prison sits along a "unique" corridor that is becoming home to a number of high-tech companies, such as eBay and Adobe, he said, with the prison "right between them."

Relocating the prison was last debated in 2005, when an analysis found relocation costs exceeded any economic benefit to the state. That report estimated building a new prison would cost between $417 million and $475 million — far more than the $93 million it estimated the property was worth if put to the "highest and best use," which it identified as residential housing. The study also found there was likely to be little savings from reduced staff because the prison was "extremely efficient as is."

But Jenkins said Monday that the study was now outdated.

The committee has heard various reports on the prison's current operations and how those might be affected by a move — from staffing levels to transporting inmates to court and the hospital, and use of volunteer services. It also solicited requests for information on relocating the prison from project management firms.

The committee received eight responses that were "all over the place," Jenkins said, including build/lease, private prison and straight-forward construction options. The committee reviewed those proposals in two closed-door sessions, including one held before it reconvened Monday to publicly vote on its recommendation.

Most of those overviews showed the state could achieve a "substantial savings" by building a more efficient prison that allowed it to reduce labor costs by requiring fewer staff to manage inmates, he said.

Jenkins said the committee questioned the suggested savings, but in the endcorrections databolstered the firms' projected cost cuts.

"It's enough of a savings that we think it is worth looking at," Jenkins said. "A higher ratio of inmates to employees could pay for this."

Currently, there is one staff person per 3.2 inmates at the Utah State Prison. The ratio is 4.26 to 1 at the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison.

According to the most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics data, in 2005 the Utah Department of Corrections inmate per employee ratio was 4; when only correctional officers were included, the ratio was 5.1 inmates per officer — which was on par with the national average.

Jenkins told The Salt Lake Tribune in an earlier interview that the firms also made a strong argument about how the current prison property could be used to increase local and state tax revenue. A new prison also offers advantages in safety and programming, he said.

In the past, the most frequently mentioned possible locations for a new prison are in Tooele, Juab and Box Elder counties.

brooke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @Brooke4Trib