This past summer I worked as an intern at the Alliance for a Better Utah, where I helped research counties in rural Utah in order to compile data into a report contrasting the economic profiles of Utah’s rural and urban counties. I gathered information about small rural counties and their unemployment rates, as well as their primary sources of income. What struck me most about these counties, especially the most remote ones, was the role the jail system plays in the counties’ income.

Since the 1990s, state prisons have been under pressure to expand as the criminal justice system evolved to require offenders in violent and drug-related crimes to do jail time. In response, counties were encouraged to build jails to house prisoners and prevent overcrowding, and many Utah rural counties struggling with high unemployment and low general revenue did just that.

After 1987, when the Utah State Prison reached maximum bed capacity, Utah created the Inmate Placement Program. The IPP sends eligible inmates to approved counties that provide jail housing, and the counties are paid a daily incarceration rate per inmate ($52 per day as of 2016). In addition to the infusion of state funds into the county budget, jails provide jobs for the community in these rural counties. In fact, Utah is one of 11 states that reduced its state prison population but saw county jail numbers increase. This trend is likely to continue with the recent announcement that the new state prison is over budget, behind schedule and will provide fewer beds than originally projected.

But despite the economic benefits, there are a few problems with the resulting system, particularly around inmate treatment and safety, and inmate community re-entry after incarceration.

As has now been widely reported, the Daggett County Jail was permanently closed when former inmates filed a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections for the abuse of inmates. Prisoners of the Daggett County Jail said they “lived in fear for their lives, health, safety and welfare because of the ongoing abuse.”

This scandal took a large toll on Daggett County, as the sheriff retired and three deputies were convicted in association with the abuse of prisoners. With the loss of the county jail, Daggett County lost a significant source of income and jobs.

Prior to closing the jail, Daggett County had received 30 percent of its revenue, $110,000 to $115,000 monthly, from the Utah Department of Corrections to house roughly 80 inmates. The rapid rise in county jail populations, together with the incentive to use incarceration fees to augment the county budget, coupled with a failure of state oversight, resulted in mismanagement, inmate treatment and safety issues and eventual damage to the county’s income.

Another issue with the prison/jail system in Utah is the after-incarceration re-entry process for former prisoners. The state prison chooses who is relocated to county jails based on risk factors including their security level, medical and mental health status, programming needs, crime of conviction, institutional history, gang affiliation or other management concerns. But the lack of community programs and post-prison integration jobs in small rural counties is not being addressed. Most prisoners in county jails likely have a residency somewhere else and reintegrating into a foreign community with few training and job opportunities makes stability near impossible.

The county jail supplement to state prison facilities is a bright concept but the execution and success of the program thus far are dismal and the program needs much restructuring to ensure its usefulness.

The state prison system has a responsibility to oversee county jail operations to make sure that what happened in Daggett County cannot happen again. Similarly, the state prison system has a responsibility to the effective post-prison reintegration of inmates into the community by ensuring that every inmate of the prison system, wherever housed, is given access to the benefits of the state prison system’s re-entry education.

Elena Zipp | Alliance for a Better Utah

Elena Zipp is a high school senior at Rowland Hall. She is participating in a writing project with Alliance for a Better Utah and lives in Park City.