The human factor
As Utah's elected officials discuss whether, and where, to move the state prison, they must not forget that the most important thing to consider is what is good for the inmates of that prison.
Not good in the sense of cozy, cushy and comfortable. But good in the sense of providing the greatest opportunity for those convicted of one crime to choose a path that will not lead to another. And another. And another.
Eager to free prime land in Draper from the tax-exempt position of housing the state's main prison, the Utah Legislature recently launched a process to select a site for a new prison. While the bulk of any financial bonanza is likely to fall to real estate agents and construction firms, state and local officials are understandably tempted by the possibility of putting the land back on the tax rolls and building on the area's already booming high-tech sector.
The prison in Draper is seen as a hindrance to economic development there, but officials of some counties further removed from the Wasatch Front's population boom would welcome the creation of a new prison in their communities as a source of jobs and income.
Others are promoting the idea of continuing, and expanding, the ongoing use of various county jails to house many of the state's prisoners. In theory, state payments to county jails would be a benefit to those county's budgets, while coming at a smaller cost to the state government.
All of these ideas deserve careful scrutiny. The Utah Prison Relocation and Development Board should not be so gung ho about the idea of creating a giant new prison in, say, Utah's west desert, that it ignores some more decentralized options.
There is an argument to be made, and local officials are strongly making it, for the expansion of the state's other prison, the Central Utah Correctional Facility at Gunnison. There is also a strong case for expanding the use of many county jails around the state to house inmates, especially the low-risk kind, helping those counties with their law enforcement budgets while saving the state money over the cost of running a larger prison.
Inmates might also benefit from being kept in smaller jails, rather than huge prisons, if those jails were held to standards that provide necessary health care, education and other programming, and protect the community from the inmates and the inmates from each other.
Almost everyone who goes to prison comes out. When they do, all of us will be safer if the detention they emerge from was humane, proactive and designed to make that reintegration easier for the ex-inmates and safer for the rest of us.