Op-ed: Utah State Prison has plenty of life left in it
Prisons in America are big business. The budgetary commitment required to build and operate prisons is enormous.
Consider this: A recent Utah study estimated the cost to taxpayers of building a new state-of-the-art prison at $550 million to $600 million. According to the study, that works out to be about $131,000 per cell. The Utah Department of Corrections calculates the cost of housing one inmate for a year at more than $21,000. Perhaps it goes without saying, but every tax dollar spent on building new prisons is one less dollar available for education, parks, transportation, and other state needs.
Closing the state prison in Draper and building a new one someplace else may not be in the best interest of citizens in our state. Here's why.
The Draper prison compound is home to approximately 4,300 inmates spread among eight separate housing units. That's a lot of prison beds to replace should the Utah Legislature decide to move the prison out of Draper to a more rural and presumably out-of-the-way location.
What many people don't realize is that only one facility in Draper currently needs replacement. That facility, the Wasatch unit, houses only 800 inmates and was built in 1951 to replace the old state prison in Sugar House. The remaining 3,500 beds exist in much newer facilities, largely built from the 1980s on. Those facilities have years of viable life and shouldn't require replacement for many years.
Historically, prisons in America have been built predominantly in low-density population, rural communities. The reason for this is that trying to gain approval to build a prison in or near a large city typically results in vocal community opposition.
But the problems with building prisons in rural communities are noteworthy. First, staffing a new rural prison would present several challenges. Assuming the new prison would provide treatment for sex offenders, drug addicts and alcoholics, as well as inmates suffering from mental health problems, would the rural community be able to provide enough professional staff with the necessary education and experience to serve these special-needs inmates?
In addition, some new hires would naturally be selected from the local labor pool. That usually means hiring rural, white males with limited education, no prior experience working in a prison, and little or no understanding of ethnic minority culture or experience.
And because you can't open a prison exclusively with inexperienced new hires, the corrections department would have to cajole or coerce existing prison employees to uproot their families and move into the new prison community. Can it be done? Sure. Would it present a hardship and be disruptive to current employees? Absolutely.
Several studies have demonstrated that regular family visitation reduces recidivism once the inmate is returned to society. Unfortunately, prisons built in rural areas tend to be filled disproportionately with minority inmates who often come from large urban centers and then find themselves incarcerated a long way from home. That makes it difficult for friends and family members to visit. It is just too far and/or too expensive to make the trip.
A reasonable question to ask is whether the cost/benefit makes sense for Utah taxpayers? Who really stands to benefit? Clearly, the Utah real estate industry has to be drooling at the prospect of having that land available to build more homes, office buildings and strip malls.
How about our friends in the Legislature? Is it a coincidence that the National Association of Realtors together with the Utah Association of Realtors donated more than $600,000 in a non-election year to candidates and political causes? Which legislators have their fingers in the Utah real estate pie and stand to gain financially by moving the prison?
I would urge all Utah citizens to become informed about this important public policy issue and to communicate with their respective elected officials before we end up paying for a total new prison to replace the current one that only needs a single new 800-bed housing unit.
Michael Norman is a professor emeritus from the Department of Criminal Justice at Weber State University and an author.
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