It took longer than expected and was way over budget, but officials are nearing the end of the largest construction project in state history: the new Utah State Prison.
In just a few weeks, those who are currently incarcerated at the Draper prison are expected to be shuttled to the new 200-acre facility, located 5 miles west of Salt Lake City International Airport.
State leaders celebrated Wednesday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, marking the end of a long and oftentimes controversial process after years of debate about costs and location.
“I’m just so amazed at where we are,” Gov. Spencer Cox said Wednesday as he stood on the main street of the massive prison complex.
Construction marred by challenges, rising costs
Where the prison facility ended up was an expensive choice, because the land is near the Great Salt Lake and is soft, requiring extra foundational support.
The project was initially slated to cost $550 million in 2016. But those costs ballooned to $1.05 billion by Wednesday’s ribbon cutting.
Jim Russell, director of the Division of Facilities Construction and Management, said they faced a lot of obstacles getting the new prison built.
They were in direct competition with the new airport for contractors and workers, he said, and had to deal with construction costs “going crazy” over the six-year period.
They battled corrosive soil, buggy weather, hot summers and cold winters. And that’s not to mention the effects the coronavirus pandemic had on workers, or the 2020 earthquake had on the buildings that were under construction.
As he toured the new facility, Russell said he noticed the way the sunlight poured in through skylights and the large windows in the dorms.
“What a big deal,” he said. “This facility is based around having a more normal behavior. And so I stand with the inmates and their families that are here now, and will be in the future, and hope that this facility will be a leg up on them being able to rebuild their lives and rebuild their families.”
Cox echoed similar hopes that the new prison will be a place for people to learn new skills and be ready to re-enter society after serving time for crimes they committed.
“Because we know that someday most of them, almost all of them, will be back with us,” he said. “Living in our communities. Our hope is that when they return to our neighborhoods, they will have the tools necessary to rebuild their lives. And that doesn’t happen if you just put people in a box.”
Draper prison site to undergo massive development
The prison move, though, wasn’t just about updating dilapidated buildings or giving incarcerated Utahns a safer facility. The 600 acres where the old prison sits in Draper is choice real estate and has been deemed the biggest economic development opportunity in Utah history.
The state-backed business development is expected to boast new homes, trails, open spaces and parks along portions of the Jordan River.
“The old prison site will be one that will bless the finances of this state for many, many years in the future,” said Sen. Jerry Stevenson, who co-chaired the Prison Relocation Commission.
Stevenson said Wednesday during the ribbon-cutting ceremony that state officials made the right choice in moving the prison west of the airport.
“As Brigham Young said, ‘This is the place,’” he said. “This is the right place for the Utah State Prison.”
Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson said Wednesday that he couldn’t help but notice a “dead end” sign on the new road that leads to the prison. He challenged the governor to tear the sign down.
“This prison is not a dead end,” he said. “But it’s actually a place that [those who are incarcerated] can hit the reset button and leave here better than they came.”
Cox took the legislator up on the challenge. An hour later, he stood on the side of the long road, the prison in the distance, and looked up at the large yellow sign, contemplating how to bring it down.
Did they have a sledgehammer? No.
Maybe he could shoot at it? There was a law enforcement officer with a sidearm near him, but it wasn’t needed.
A construction crew had come by and loosened the lug nuts for the governor, so all it took was a few good pushes before that “dead end” sign came toppling down.
Cox then pulled out a black marker and scribbled his signature on the signage.
Just above the all-caps “DEAD END,” the governor wrote: “To new beginnings.”