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Editorial: Prison relocation idea needs careful scrutiny

Prison panel gives predictable advice

First Published Feb 06 2014 05:31 pm • Last Updated Feb 06 2014 05:31 pm

The recommendation that the Utah Legislature proceed with the relocation of the state prison is based on a set of questionable, if not downright sad, assumptions. Lawmakers, the governor and the rest of us should carefully examine those assumptions before proceeding.

The state’s Prison Relocation and Development Authority Wednesday did what its own name practically commanded it to do. It recommended that the prison be relocated — somewhere — and that its current site, along I-15 at the southern edge of Salt Lake County, be sold to developers.

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What a surprise.

With the power that real estate developers have always had in state government, and the dollar signs they can use to mesmerize politicians, it was practically a foregone conclusion that the only options the panel would forward would be variations on a single theme. And that would be to tear down the existing penitentiary in Draper and turn the nearly 700 acres on which it sits into so many houses, malls, big boxes and convenience stores.

The proceeds to the state from selling the land, the panel’s consultants argue, would effectively reduce the taxpayers’ net cost of replacing the aging prison from $471 million to a mere $102 million.

What the panel did not do, was not expected to do, was to consider whether a new prison, located in an as yet undetermined spot, would do a better job of the one thing a prison is truly for — housing and, to the extent humanly possible, rehabilitating prisoners.

The panel made no effort to refute or even fully consider the concerns raised by corrections workers and volunteers and by advocates for the prisoners and their families. Those concerns center on whether a prison sitting further from the state’s urban core would find itself handicapped as it recruits guards and counselors and as it offers educational and substance abuse services.

Legislators must consider whether a new prison would be less able to help inmates keep in contact with families, employers, churches and other resources they will depend on when they are eventually released back into the same cruel world that they found difficult to lawfully navigate before.

They should also be suspicious of the suggestion that the state’s prison population will continue to soar, with no consideration given to reducing the head count through sentencing or parole reform.

This is supposed to be about corrections, not land speculating.

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