The preparations ahead of Operation Rio Grande — which requires more jail space in Salt Lake County — underwent minute-by-minute changes Thursday as state and county officials negotiated the lead-up to an imminent law enforcement crackdown on the crime-ridden Rio Grande district of downtown Salt Lake City.
Discussions that heated up this week involved Gov. Gary Herbert’s office, the state Department of Corrections, the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office and others, while all worked to fit a puzzle into place before the launch of the secretive police operation.
An agreement reached Tuesday between Salt Lake and Utah counties for sharing inmates was called off the same night by state leaders, and a program that treats more than 100 incarcerated drug offenders was briefly on the chopping block before state and county officials agreed treatment shouldn’t be disrupted. Salt Lake County inmates will still be sent to counties with jail beds to hold them, and the prison will play a role in making space.
Emails obtained by The Tribune show Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Pam Lofgreen, who oversees the jail, was told by state Corrections Director Rollin Cook to pull the plug on the transfer of inmates to Utah County.
“At approximately 9:30 p.m. [Tuesday night] I received a text from Director Cook informing me that we needed to find alternate housing as Utah County was no longer an option,” Lofgreen wrote to County Council members, according to the emails.
Just hours before that email, Lofgreen had asked for and received approval from the council to send over 100 inmates to Utah County, which she attributed to the need to free up beds in preparation for the secretive action plan dubbed “Operation Rio Grande.”
Council members had been reluctant, but finally agreed to the Utah County contract, which set a rate – $72 per day per inmate – that is $20 higher than what the state and county had planned to pay four other counties for space. Tooele, Weber and Davis counties agreed to charge $52 per day for each inmate, a cost the state and county agreed to split. Tooele already has more than 30 Salt Lake County inmates, according to Tooele Sheriff’s Lt. Ray Clinton.
“Last week [jails willing to house inmates] had about 160 beds available and they still were looking for about 140,” Clinton said.
Lofgreen said in her email that the prison planned to shuffle inmates it pays various counties to house, thereby creating space that could be used by Salt Lake County. The movement, however, could have imperiled a program that treats drug offenders who are still in custody. Lofgreen wrote the changes would cut the program’s capacity for treating male inmates by half.
Within hours, the plans changed again.
“Whatever they were potentially planning to do they’re not planning to do anymore,” said Adam Cohen, CEO of Odyssey House, which runs the drug-treatment program known as CATS in Salt Lake County. “It’s been a roller coaster.”
Under a pending waiver application to expand Medicaid, completing CATS and similar programs helps make men and women eligible for the federal health coverage for low-income individuals.
“Although our population is 152 [inmates being treated], we’ll see between 800 and 1,000 people go through the program each year,” Cohen said. “It’s a substantial figure.”
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams worked with Herbert’s office to preserve the program, Cohen said. McAdams declined to discuss the plan other than to say it “can’t be delayed.”
“I can’t go into details of the specifics on it, but everybody is working very closely to make sure that we can take action swiftly,” McAdams said. “We’ve got to address the lawlessness that we see in Rio Grande.”
Molly Prince, founder and past president of the Utah Prisoner Advocate Network (UPAN), said the nonprofit organization heard from state prisoners that the Department of Corrections was discussing creating space in the Promontory Facility, which houses inmates undergoing sex offender- and substance-abuse treatment in the Draper prison complex.
The families of two other inmates who were in the Promontory Facility said the inmates were told Wednesday the state would make more space in the facility for incoming prisoners.
Another woman said her son was in the Gunnison prison Thursday morning but was moved with dozens of other inmates to the Promontory Facility in Draper. She spoke with The Tribune on the condition of anonymity for herself and her son, fearing he would be retaliated against for speaking publicly. The Tribune confirmed the inmate was transported and in Promontory Thursday evening.
“Things are such a nightmare there [in Promontory],” said the woman whose son was moved. “They’re so confused.”
The governor’s office declined to confirm various pieces of information “for now.”
“There are ongoing discussions about how best to free up additional jail beds, and it is an ongoing and complex process,” the governor’s office wrote in an emailed response to questions.
If those discussions include adding inmates to a facility that provides substance-abuse treatment, Prince said it could become an issue.
“UPAN does have a concern if they’re going to add an extra 112 inmates to the Promontory Facility, which is intended for treatment,” Prince said. “Overcrowding is not conducive to treatment.”
House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, who is active in the negotiations and whose public calls in July for immediate action to address crime in Rio Grande led to this action, hasn’t responded to requests for comment for three days.
Lofgreen sent all requests for comment to the Department of Corrections. Cook declined a request for an interview through a spokeswoman.
“The Department is involved in ongoing discussions regarding jail beds,” Maria Peterson, a Corrections spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “Confirming inmate transfers or plans for inmate transfers presents a security risk for the facilities and the public.”