McEntee: Move the prison? Lock up that idea for now
There's a lot of talk in the Legislature these days about how much money Utahns would save by knocking down the old Utah State Prison in Draper and building a new one ... well, no one knows exactly where.
More to the point, there's a lot of talk about how much taxpayers and, mostly, developers would gain from scrapping the 390 acres in Draper now occupied by the prison and building roads, homes, shopping centers, movie complexes and all the other trappings of southern Salt Lake Valley cities.
Many millions, if not billions, of dollars are at stake. Developers and real estate types would earn a bundle, and the new construction would put a lot of people to work.
But the prison already employs about 1,000 people and has about 1,500 volunteers to watch over about 3,750 inmates. Many of those prisoners, young and old, will one day be free and looking for places to live and jobs of their own.
Estimates put the cost of tearing the existing prison down and building a new one at between $500 million and $600 million. No one knows where, exactly, it might be built. Tooele County or Box Elder County, maybe? How about the flatlands of western Utah?
If so, we'd run into some serious human problems. Would volunteers or family members have the time, money and transportation to visit a distant prison?
What about taking inmates to the University Hospital and its affiliates for health care or getting them to court?
Then there's the people who work there now. Hundreds could lose their jobs.
Meantime, according to the Department of Corrections, many of the buildings at Point of the Mountain have many years, if not decades, of usefulness still in them. The Oquirrh units have about 34 years left, and the Uinta units have about the same, although a couple of those buildings would last another 45 years.
It's true that some units, such as the Wasatch blocks, are getting old. So's the prison's hog shelter, which has lasted 22 years past its sell-by date. But there are a lot of years left in the rest of the complex.
When the move-the-prison debate arose in the 2012 Legislature, then-Corrections Director Tom Patterson told me it would take 10 to 15 years to work out the economics of building a new prison. (Corrections' interim Director Mike Haddon declined to comment Friday.)
Finally, there's the eerie feeling you get when you pass the prison complex on southbound Interstate 15. I wonder if it's ever been a deterrent to some wayward soul who took a look and said, "I never want to go there."
There are so many questions and complexities about demolishing one prison and building another as well as lingering puzzlers about funding, composition of boards, the impact on employees and possible tax ramifications.
Lawmakers would be wise to spend, at the very least, another year in study.
Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter, @pegmcentee.