Fortunately, I don’t have much experience with prisons. But I have an interest in history. Thus, talk in the Utah Legislature of moving the state prison from the Point of the Mountain to a more remote location sent me into research mode.
I was born in 1950, about a year before the old state prison at what is now Sugar House Park closed. More than 400 prisoners were moved on March 12, 1951, to the new Draper facility. I can vaguely remember the old brick tower on the corner of 2100 S. 1300 East.
In September 1990, I attended a free Pete Seeger concert near the place at the old prison where labor activist Joe Hill, who many historians feel was unjustly tried, was executed Nov. 19, 1915.
According to an article written by Dolores Allen Donohoo for ShopSugarHouse.org, Mormon pioneer leader Brigham Young selected the Sugar House site for the Utah Territorial Prison in 1853. She wrote that he figured it was safe because it was in a remote location six miles from downtown Salt Lake City.
Another history piece said the federal government expanded the prison twice in the late 1800s before statehood to house polygamists who were being prosecuted.
When the Legislature decided to move the prison to the Point of the Mountain, a debate ensued about what should be done with the Sugar House land. At first it was proposed as a state park, but then-Gov. J. Bracken Lee resisted, saying he didn’t want a Utah State Parks system formed when the budget was tight. Lee favored selling the land to the highest bidder.
The state elected to set aside 30 acres for what would become Highland High School. It sold the rest to Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County for $225,000, a figure that was paid in full in 1956. A unique organization called the Sugar House Park Authority was formed to manage what is now one of the valley’s most important green spaces.
When it was built in the 1950s, the 700-acre Point of the Mountain facility in Draper must have seemed like it, too, was far from the population centers. The prison has expanded over the years and now has a capacity of 4,500 for male and female prisoners.
I’ve had a chance to see the prison from the inside. If memory serves, a journalism professor in college arranged a tour in the early 1970s in a class I took on reporting about public institutions. As a member of the Utah National Guard, I went into a lower-security wing with some high-school students attending the annual Freedom Academy to listen to inmates talk about what it was like to lose their freedom.
My most memorable moment, though, came when Gary Gilmore was executed by firing squad on Jan. 17, 1977. According to an excellent research piece written by Aly Anderson in 2010, Gilmore’s execution was important because it was the first since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
I was there on that fateful day, standing with a long lens borrowed from a Tribune photographer on a hill above the prison. I am pretty certain I saw Gilmore being led from the prison to the spot where he would be shot by a firing squad and reasonably sure I heard the shots. Then I read an amazing column by Chicago writer Bob Greene called “We came for the killing” and wondered what drew me to that spot. In retrospect, I felt like a ghoul.
Now we’re talking about moving the prison. The guess here is that, unlike the late 1940s, our governor and legislators won’t allow a city or county to purchase any of the land for a legacy park such as the one at Sugar House. Developers can’t wait to grab that property, with proceeds being used to build the new prison.
If the present prison is moved, we will always remember the old cement buildings and high fences at the Point of the Mountain. Just as Joe Hill is remembered at Sugar House Park, we will recall Gary Gilmore and the others who faced their executioners.