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Republican governor candidate Jon Huntsman Jr. says 53 years after it was opened at the Point of the Mountain, the Utah State Prison and its nearly 3,500 inmates should be moved away from growing neighborhoods.
"This is the right time to look at moving the facility," Huntsman said Monday.
"The Wasatch Front is filling up," he said, adding, "they'll run out of space at Draper next month."
Huntsman declined to name prospective sites for a new prison, but said it would "have to be close to the Wasatch Front" for purposes of having a suitable population base for staffing, transportation and inmate-family visitation.
"It is more likely than not it would be a county close to Salt Lake County, like Tooele," said campaign spokesman Jason Chaffetz, who clarified that Huntsman was not singling out Tooele.
Gunnison, site of a current regional prison in Sanpete County, also would fit the criteria of being close enough to the population center, Chaffetz said.
"We're leaving all those questions still on the table," said Chaffetz. "We want to find a community that would embrace this with open arms."
But it doesn't appear that local leaders in at least two of the prospective prison sites are ready to roll out the red carpet.
"I don't know that folks around here would go for that," said Gunnison Mayor Scott Hermansen, who expressed surprise at Huntsman's proposal. "We don't mind a little growth [in the prison] but I'm not sure we want to see that."
The regional prison now located in Gunnison houses 1,100 inmates, up from 600 when it opened 10 years ago. Relocating the main prison there would result in inmates outnumbering the other 2,500 residents.
Sanpete County Commissioner Greg Dettinger said Huntsman's announcement was "shocking. . . . He hasn't talked to anyone in Sanpete County about that."
Tooele County officials were caught off guard, as well.
"I'd have to see an awful lot of information before we'd agree to that," said County Commissioner Gene White. "With our economic development, I'm not sure it's something we want. A prison brings jobs, but it doesn't bring property taxes."
Commissioner Dennis Rockwell said: "I don't like being labeled the dumping grounds. . . . "What other kind of waste are they going to dump on us now?"
Tooele County already is home to the state's only commercial radioactive waste disposal facility, has stored hazardous waste and is the proposed site of a storage site for high-level nuclear waste.
Building a prison in Tooele County to free up valuable real estate in Draper would not be fair, Rockwell said. "It sounds like the rich protecting the rich."
Huntsman said the 650 acres of state land associated with the current Draper prison complex could bring an estimated $350 million to $500 million on the open market.
The gubernatorial candidate said that sale of prime real estate would be the main source of funding for the construction of a new facility. Huntsman also suggested the state should expect to have offers of free land for a new facility as an incentive to attract it to a new location.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Scott Matheson Jr. said he was concerned relocating the prison "could end up having a very big price tag."
"We need to be very careful about this in a state budget situation that is stretched in a lot of different directions," said Matheson. "If we were in a position to have extra dollars to address crowded conditions, the crowded condition I would prefer to address is crowded classrooms - that would be a higher priority for me."
Huntsman said as a first step he would seek "minimal" funding in the upcoming legislative session, beginning in January, for a feasibility study.
Conducted by corrections professionals, legislators and private citizens, the study would look at relocation as part of an overall prison-reform effort.
The review would include an examination of state Corrections' salaries and benefits with an eye toward closing the gap between the state and local governments wages for Corrections officers and other employees, said Huntsman.
"In many cases, we train them only to lose them to higher paying jobs in the field," he said.
Jack Ford, spokesman for the Department of Corrections, lauded the feasibility study as "a great idea. Let's look at this and see."
One consideration that needs to be taken into account is the commute for more than 1,000 employees, most living along the Wasatch Front. Corrections workers also transport 85 to 120 prisoners a day, on average, to court, hospitals or other destinations.
Rep. Dave Hogue, Republican House chairman of the committee overseeing the Corrections budget, agreed that a feasibility study is worthwhile. But he cautioned the state shouldn't rush into any such move.
"Not within the next couple of years. If you were looking at five years out, maybe," said Hogue. "Even if you were to start building today it would take two to three years to build."
Additionally, Huntsman announced his endorsement of the Drug Offender Reform Act - a legislative proposal worked on for more than two years that would steer state policy away from incarceration of drug criminals and toward prevention and treatment.
Proponents say the shift in strategy would save taxpayers millions of dollars in the long-run because of the relatively high cost of locking a drug offender up compared to treatment alternatives. But the estimated $7.5 million price tag sunk the measure in the 2004 Legislature after the concept was convincingly supported by its passage in the state Senate.
Huntsman said as governor he would ask for the bill to be reconsidered.
"We don't need our prisons to be a high-priced detox centers."
Tribune reporter Derek Jensen contributed to this story.
Utah State Prison
* Opened: 1951 in Draper
* Size: Originally 1,002 acres; down to about 700.
* Inmates: 3,581.
* Employees: 1,150 total (727 POST-certified).
Source: Utah Corrections Department