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West Valley City • Advocacy groups are asking the public to consider not only where a new Utah State Prison should be built, but how a new penitentiary could help inmates stay out of trouble when they are eventually released.
The People Not Prison Coalition is a group that includes drug and mental-health-treatment organizations, the ACLU of Utah, the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City and the Disability Law Center, among others.
"We can't afford to miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Andrew Riggle with the Disability Law Center.
The Prison Relocation Commission is expected to recommend a site from among five finalists by Aug. 1. This coalition of advocates doesn't have a favorite location and would be open to leaving the 4,000-bed prison in Draper if the state would still commit to building a new complex.
Anna Brower, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, argued the state is unlikely to build a modern prison without an "economic motivation" and that motivation is the ability to turn the Draper site along Interstate 15 into a high-tech business park.
Advocates are far more interested in what a new prison would look like and what goes on inside it than where it ends up. They want it to be a place that has far less solitary confinement and far more space and opportunity for inmates to get vocational training and mental health and drug treatment.
So far, the coalition believes the Department of Corrections and in particular, Executive Director Rollin Cook, has the same vision. Cook advocated for treatment-heavy criminal-justice reforms in the state Legislature, arguing such change would reduce recidivism rates. Lawmakers approved the package of reforms this year.
Riggle said the relocation debate should focus on the right location and the right services but shouldn't vilify inmates or correctional officers. The coaliton pointed out that Draper hasn't seen a spike in crime because of the prison.
Ben Aldana, a former inmate, told reporters the current prison system, which lacks broad access to treatment, is the equivalent of beating a pit bull and then not expecting it to be violent. He believes a new prison would make it easier for people to transition back to a normal life, as he has, with a wife, two children and a steady job.
"Prisoners are not monsters. They are people," he said. "Look at me, I was a prisoner, I'm not a monster."