No matter what a committee investigating the feasibility of moving the Utah State Prison in Draper ultimately decides, it's clear to some members that "part of the overall solution" is to house more state inmates at county jails and at the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison.
"I think those two are a given," said Lane Summerhays, chairman of the Prison Relocation Authority Committee after the group's meeting Tuesday at the Capitol.
Summerhays said the Gunnison prison, which some committee members visited last week, is state-of-the-art and doing a "wonderful job." Given its capacity for expansion, it makes sense to "accelerate that piece of the puzzle," he said.
He said that once the committee determines how Gunnison can be expanded, it could send out requests for proposals for that project and potentially have responses to share with lawmakers during their next session so construction could begin "relatively soon."
The existing Central Utah Correctional Facility opened in 1990 and has been expanded four times. The original plan was to eventually house 2,100 inmates there.
At present, there are about 1,600 minimum and medium security inmates incarcerated in Gunnison. In 2008, the Utah Department of Corrections received $54 million to plan, design and construct two more housing units in Gunnison a 192-bed maximum security unit and a 288-bed medium security unit. But, after some planning and design work was completed, remaining funding was pulled back because of the recession.
Since then, the department has tried unsuccessfully to get funding to move forward with the 192-bed unit, with the most recent request coming last year. The estimated cost of that project is $34 million.
In the meantime, the department has relied on jail contracting to help it deal with a growing prison population, though the jails are unable to accommodate higher security inmates or those with certain medical and mental health issues.
Elected officials in Gunnison and Sanpete County say they welcome an expansion of the facility, which has provided good paying jobs and volunteer opportunities.
But the committee also heard a cautionary message from representatives of faith groups who said their work at the Utah State Prison will be hampered if the main prison is moved too far from the state's urban center.
"Those in nondenominational or other faiths are going to be heavily impacted because they don't have the pool of people to call on to serve in those locations," said Paul Hewitt, prison ministry leader for the Wasatch Presbyterian Church.
Wayne Parker, regional director of LDS Correctional Services also said a move would present challenges for its volunteer effort, specifically with the transitional services provided to inmates who are being released back into the community. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints currently has 450 volunteers who provide service at the prison one or more times a week; another 350 volunteers do occasional projects at the Draper facility.