The unseemly haste with which lawmakers seem to be moving toward the relocation of Utah State Prison seems to suggest that our elected leaders have forgotten just what a such a facility is for.
Prisons serve many purposes. First, of course, is that they separate us from people who are likely, given past behavior, to harm us. They also endeavor, with varying degrees of success, to rehabilitate those who have broken the law, hopefully to the point that, once released, they will be able to make their own way in the world, without either dependence on public aid or invasion of private property.
They also, like every other institution of such size, public and private, provide jobs and economic spin-offs that benefit the larger community.
But the idea that a state's primary correctional facility should be torn down here and rebuilt there because somebody sees dollar signs dancing before their eyes is not a valid reason for such a significant change. Not, at least, until all the ramifications have been sorted through.
A prison located further from the state's main metropolitan area would make it harder for inmates to stay connected to their families and other support systems that are necessary for them to successfully re-enter society. Volunteers who now provide education and other services would be more difficult to recruit. So, perhaps, would professional staff. And there would be higher costs, and greater risk, to move prisoners to and from court or for medical care.
A bill moving through the Legislature, SB72, would consider none of that as it proposes to front $1.7 million in taxpayers money to a Prison Land Management Authority to get the project moving along.
Sketches now before lawmakers suggest it would cost $600 million to replace the existing lockup, along I-15 in Draper, with another, more modern facility, maybe in Tooele or Box Elder counties. A new prison, they say, would save maybe $20 million in labor and operating costs and another $3 million in deferred maintenance.
So what's in it for the rest of us?
Dumping the 690 acres the prison now occupies, admittedly in a prime development corridor, onto the real estate market would supposedly bring the state anywhere between $70 million and $140 million.
Less, of course, the cost of all the additional roads, schools, recreational facilities, fire trucks, police cars and red-air days.
The rest, they say, would come back in the property and sales taxes generated by whatever got built on those acres, all now tax-exempt state property.
That's still an awfully long investment curve. And it doesn't even consider the human cost.