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Utah State Prison throws open doors to make case for its move

Published February 27, 2015 2:00 pm

Relocation plans • Director says the current prison is not acceptable if the state is serious about reforming its criminal-justice system.
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Draper • The women's prison was designed to house law-breaking young men. The men's mental-health building originally held women. One four-story housing unit looks like Alcatraz, complete with heavy levers that officers pull to open each door, because it was built during the same era.

Department of Corrections leaders took reporters on a tour of Utah State Prison on Thursday to showcase why they believe it's time for the state to build a new penitentiary and leave the old Draper site behind.

"Everything is make-do," said Corrections Director Rollin Cook, who pointed out a brown shoelace used to open a window and a modern dental office in what was supposed to be a visiting room.



As Cook was pointing out the flaws, his boss, Gov. Gary Herbert, was telling reporters in Salt Lake City that moving the prison isn't a sure thing, even though a state-created Prison Relocation Commission is meeting Friday to tweak a list of prospective locations.

Herbert gave moving the prison "50-50" odds.

"I think everyone can see the advantages of relocation if there's a better place to move it," he said. "If we can't find a better place than Draper, then Draper is the place."

A grass-roots group, Keep it in Draper, sprung up after the commission started identifying potential sites, including one in Eagle Mountain in northern Utah County, one near the Salt Lake City International Airport and one in Tooele County near Miller Motorsports Park.

While the Legislature overwhelmingly voted in 2014 for a resolution calling for the prison to move, support appears to have softened.

Commission co-chairmen Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, and Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, have sought to shore up support for moving the prison.

"I think the merits for building a new prison on another site far outweigh leaving it where it is," Stevenson said.

Cook, who is a non-voting member of the commission, hasn't weighed in on where the prison should move, but he's adamant that it's time for the state to build a new, efficient correctional facility.

He noted that some suggest that all the prison needs is to knock down its oldest buildings and replace them.

"If we want to change the way we do criminal justice, that is absolutely not true," he said.

A group of corrections officials escorted reporters through a series of antiquated buildings, the oldest constructed in 1951, noting cells constructed of cinder block, cement and old iron bars. In a new prison, the cell fronts would be safety glass, which has two benefits: it allows officers to see inside and it gives isolated inmates a chance to at least see other people.

The Wasatch A block is a football-field-size structure that has four floors of iron-barred cells, each about 6 feet by 8 feet. The building has six feet of interior space that inmates can walk around in before going out into the yards. It houses inmates who are going to be in prison for long sentences.

One inmate let reporters look in his cell and pointed out cardboard under his bunk, there to help keep the mice out.

A newer prison would have more space for communal eating, therapy and vocational training. The prison currently offers classes, though they tend to take place in mobile trailers between the different units.

The infirmary has a modern X-ray machine but only 20 beds, and the inmates receiving medical attention are separated from where the nurses sit, in a situation that medical director Richard Garden called "archaic." If the prison does move, he's hoping for a 40-bed medical unit.

And Cook, who spent much of his career at the Salt Lake County jail, wants more mental-health beds; an intake area for new inmates that doesn't double as the visitors' entrance; housing pods where officers can scan the room from one vantage point and see each inmate; and fewer entry points into the sprawling complex.

Such a prison, says Cook, would be safer for inmates and guards and would be better suited to rehabilitating people.

But the vision is based on a new prison in a new location, and that debate doesn't appear to be over just yet.

mcanham@sltrib.com

Twitter: @mattcanham

— Robert Gehrke contributed to this report.

 

 

 

 

 

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