"Gunnison has got to go forward," said Lane Summerhays, PRADA chairman. "Gunnison is really unrelated to moving the prison. If we don't expand Gunnison, we put the state in a position we really don't want to be in."
The problem? By statute, when the prison population reaches 98 percent of capacity, corrections must start releasing prisoners. With 144 new male inmates entering the prison system each year, that is expected to happen by the spring of 2017.
At that point, the state will have no more empty beds at the Utah State Prison or the Central Utah Correctional Facility and will have filled the 500 or so beds now still available at county jails, said Mike Haddon, deputy director.
"If it is not funded this year, it will be too late to avoid the emergency release statute," Haddon said.
The department has earmarked $12 million in nonlapsing funds for the $36 million project, which would add a 192-bed high-security unit for inmates that counties don't want or aren't equipped to house. It would take an estimated two years to get a new unit built and opened at Gunnison, which currently has room for about 1,600 inmates.
The expansion is needed regardless of whether the state moves forward with a proposal to relocate the Utah State Prison; if it does, the new prison would primarily replace beds at the aging facility, Haddon said.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert included the Gunnison expansion on his list of priority capital development projects, along with a new science building at Weber State University and an addition to the Huntsman Cancer Institute.
The Executive Offices and Criminal Justice Appropriations subcommittee ranked the Gunnison project fourth on its priority funding list, behind six new Utah Highway Patrol troopers, a new criminal appeals attorney for the Utah Attorney General's Office and administrative funds for the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.
But the Infrastructure and General Government Appropriations subcommittee, tasked with approving the capital facilities budget, ranked the Gunnison expansion eighth, behind three new buildings on college campuses, a new unified public safety laboratory and improvements at the Utah National Guard's Camp Williams. The state building board also ranked those projects higher.
In a typical year, two or three building projects get funding, said Kristen Cox, director of the Governor's Office of Management and Budget.
Corrections officials have sought funding for the project since at least 2005. In 2008, lawmakers agreed to the Gunnison expansion but the funds were pulled back because of the recession. More recent requests have been ignored.
But Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, said the project is now critical.
"Doing nothing this year could present a significant problem," Hutchings told the Executive Appropriations Committee recently.
Added Sen Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City: "Frankly, I get that it is sexier to build higher ed buildings, but the reality is we need this to function. … If we don't build the Gunnison expansion, we will have that $12 million to try and mitigate the costs from emergency release protocols."
Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville and a vice chairman of the Executive Appropriations Committee, said that with the department's allocation "we've got part of a prison built" but another $20 million plus is "nowhere to be found."
In an interview, Wilson said there is "general consensus" behind the project but funding it is still unresolved.
"The $12 million doesn't get us across the finish line, so what are we going to do?" Wilson said. "We honestly don't know. The budget is going to be a real challenge this year. I think building beds in Gunnison makes a tremendous amount of sense and I would like to do it, but it's not my decision."
That said, Wilson added that "one thing the public is not going to tolerate is not putting people in prison who should be there."