Utah prison system down to 199 open beds as inmate population grows at a rate that the director warns is ‘not sustainable’

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Control doors and tower at the Wasatch units at the Utah State Prison in Draper. The Wasatch blocks are the oldest parts of the prison built in the early 1950's.

In the past 18 months, the population housed in Utah’s state prison system has grown by 362 inmates, Department of Corrections Executive Director Mike Haddon, said Tuesday, bringing the total count to 6,766 people.

That growth rate is “simply not sustainable,” Haddon told Utah lawmakers, with the state’s maximum prison capacity topping out at less than 7,000 inmates.

“We only have 199 beds available within the prison system,” Haddon said.

Haddon shared those figures during a hearing of the Executive Offices and Criminal Justice Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday.

He said his department is exploring various short- and long-term options for addressing capacity and staffing shortages, like new — but unfunded — partnerships with county jails to house prisoners and the prioritization of moderate- and high-risk offenders to ease the workload of agents in the Adult Probation and Parole division.

Utah’s prison population growth rate is among the highest in the nation, despite recent criminal justice reform efforts aimed at diverting both adults and juveniles to alternative programs.

Haddon said previously closed areas of the prison in Draper could be reopened to allow for additional beds, but he cautioned that staffing there is low and that beds have been intentionally capped at 3,600 to match the size of a new prison under construction in Salt Lake City that will replace the current site.

He also suggested that extra bunks could be added to the dormitory units at the Gunnison prison.

“For me, that would be a more ideal solution,” Haddon said. “We are nearly fully staffed at the Gunnison site.”

The new prison was originally planned to house 4,000 inmates, at a stated — but disputed — construction cost of $650 million. In April, state officials announced that the planned capacity had been reduced to 3,600 beds to offset roughly $130 million in higher-than-expected construction costs.

Relocation of the prison population has also been delayed and is now scheduled to begin in January 2022, more than a year later than earlier plans.

Lawmakers did not take any action during Tuesday’s hearing, but some committee members complimented Haddon for proactively forecasting options to mitigate capacity and staffing shortages.

And Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, suggested that pressure on the state’s prison capacity is likely to continue, if not increase, as Utah’s general population continues to grow.

“To add a million people to the state and not give you any more beds is just kind of reckless,” Hutchings said.

Hutchings also cautioned his colleagues that while contracting with county jails to house prison inmates can be a temporary solution, it does not solve the problem of growth within the prison system.

“When we talk about using jails as capacity, there’s some people that can be contracted to a jail and some people that can’t,” Hutchings said.

Utah’s prison population had been in decline between 2013 and 2017, according to previously reported figures and materials shared with lawmakers by Haddon on Tuesday.

Haddon said the department is looking into the factors that may be driving the current upward trend, but that he was not yet able to draw conclusions from the data.