It’s a big spread of gravel, mud and concrete. Put another way: It’s a construction site.

Look closer at the concrete box a crane lifted off a flatbed trailer Thursday, and you can see what’s being built. It’s a prison. And crews are installing the prefabricated cells one at a time.

“They’re stacked in almost like Legos,” said Mike Ambre, assistant director of the Utah Division of Facilities Construction and Management.

Ambre took journalists on a tour this week of the forthcoming prison. After some delays and cost overruns, the facility is due to cost about $780 million and begin accepting up to 3,600 inmates in January 2022. The current prison in Draper will close.

The new prison is near 7200 West and Interstate 80 in Salt Lake City. The area, known as the northwest quadrant, is relatively undeveloped, and that presented Ambre with his first challenge.

On Thursday, as he showed off trenches for lines that will power one of the buildings for male inmates, he explained how the state, utilities and Salt Lake City government had to work with private landowners to install about five miles of new electrical lines and seven miles of water and sewer lines to reach the construction site.

The northwest quadrant long has been a target for development. Those new lines will also provide power, water and sewer to other projects there, including the hotly disputed Utah inland port.

At the construction site Thursday, most of the work focused on making the structures look like structures.

At the building that will house maximum-security male inmates, a semi towing a flatbed trailer arrived with a block of cells. The block, containing two cells, is fabricated in Ogden and transported to the new prison.

The maximum security cells are made for one person. They are about 88 square feet — a little larger than such prisoners have at the Draper prison. Each has a twin bed, a stool, a small table and two small shelves, all fastened to the walls. Each also has a toilet and a sink.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Michael Ambre, assistant director of special projects for the Division of Facilities Construction and Management, gives a tour of a single-occupancy cell unit in the men's max site at the new state prison in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019.
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Construction workers Thursday were finishing the installations of blocks that had already arrived. One worker sat on a cell’s bed plank and ate a sandwich while Raul Salazar, 54, cleaned up construction waste.

Salazar works for a concrete-erecting contractor. Building a prison is not like putting up a bridge or office building, he said. He’s thought about the men who will live in the cells he is installing.

“When I saw [the cells], I said, ‘I’m glad I’m not going to be in here,’” Salazar said. “I’m glad I come from a good family.”

Salazar traveled to Salt Lake City from Eloy, Ariz., between Phoenix and Tucson. A lack of workers has been one reason the prison is on pace to cost 18% to 22% more than anticipated.

“That’s one of the challenges,” Ambre said, “labor shortages.”

Marilee Richins, deputy executive director of the Utah Department of Administrative Services, told reporters in April that the prison construction was competing with such construction projects as the $3.6 billion Salt Lake City International Airport expansion.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The men's max cell unit area takes shape as crews move a side by side single-occupancy cell block, stacking them into place at the new state prison in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019.
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There were about 200 workers at the prison site Thursday, Ambre said. He will need 1,200 a year from now when crews finish more of the on-site utility and earthwork.

After the trip to maximum security, Ambre drove his John Deere Gator to something on the other side of the construction site that’s starting to look like a building. It will be a warehouse and distribution point for all the food and equipment that will arrive at the prison.

The warehouse’s concrete walls were poured into casts laid on their side. On Thursday, workers chained the dried concrete to a crane, which lifted the 80,000-pound wall panels upright. The crane and workers on the ground put the panels in place.

The final stop on Ambre’s tour was a model of some of the prisoner housing that has been erected near the construction trailers. The models showed what the finished maximum security cells will look like along with some of the less-restrictive housing.

One of the models showed an eight-person cell with its own bathroom and shower. Living with eight people might not sound better than having your own cell, but Ambre, who toured nine prisons to get ready for Utah’s project, said that giving inmates the chance to interact with others is a way to reward good behavior.

“You get more space,” Ambre said, “more freedom.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The men's max facility is the first to go up as work continues at the new state prison in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019.
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