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Protecting the Bill of Rights in Utah since 1958

Do We NEED to Move the Prison? Wrong Question.

25 May 2015 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist


So, if you haven’t heard the news, the ACLU of Utah is supportive of the prison relocation. oquirrh5

Well, not EXACTLY.

The ACLU of Utah is supportive of new prison facilities that are humane and constitutional – and part of a criminal justice system that is fair, effective and reasonable.

In Utah, where the general public and elected officials previously have shown little if any interest in sharing that vision, this means that, by default, we are supportive of the prison relocation.

That is why, the morning after a slightly-less-contentious-than-expected-but-still-pretty-uncomfortable Open House in Salt Lake City last week, hosted by the Prison Relocation Commission and featuring a two-hour Q&A session, we participated in a press conference as part of a new coalition, “People Not Prisons.”

You can read the full story (if you haven't already) about that press conference in various media outlets:

Oh and also Fox 13 News - I highly suggest you check out this one, for Ben Aldana’s powerful words as an ex-prisoner (and current husband, father, breadwinner and soon-to-be law student).

And because the media don't always get everything right, you can also read the official People Not Prison talking points for yourself at the end of this post.

Suffice to say, the ACLU of Utah and its allies in the People Not Prisons coalitions aren’t pro-prison, we’re pro-PEOPLE. We’d prefer fewer and fewer people in prison and jail beds. But we also want better conditions for the people who are there.

Not only do inmates have a constitutional right to be treated humanely and with some modicum of dignity, but the rest of us NON-inmates have some enlightened self-interest that is realized when we treat prisoners safely and appropriately.

More than 95% of people who are incarcerated will be released. The average length of incarcerate for a Utah state prison inmate is 26 months. To protect the safety and stability of our own communities, to which these individuals will return, we owe it to ourselves to have safe, effective facilities. It is in our own best interest to have inmates leave prison with pro-social attitudes, motivation to avoid crime in the future, and the skills to move on.

None of us benefit when incarcerated individuals are released physically broken (hence the Prison Rape Elimination Act and baseline requirements for medical attention), mentally devastated (see also, solitary confinement) and socially isolated (why family and volunteer visitation matters so much).

The prison relocation conversation will continue to be dominated by questions such as, “Why not keep it in Draper? Who is making money off this? Shouldn’t we dump the prison in the West Desert?”

We can answer these questions over and over again. But they aren't the questions that matter to us. The ACLU of Utah’s basic position is this:

We have been working to improve conditions for prison and jail inmates for decades. The prison relocation presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to remake a 4000+ bed facility in one fell swoop, instantly bringing Utah’s primary prison facility into the 21st century.

We aren’t so naïve to think that everyone at the prison relocation table cares about the rights of inmates, their families and the communities to which they return. Are some – maybe many – prison relocation proponents motivated by money, economics, other selfish motives? Yeah, probably. 

But sometimes, the right things happen for the wrong reasons – and you find yourself thinking, maybe it’s about time we invest some money and attention in those among us who are easiest to disdain and ignore.

Above photo courtesy of the Utah Department of Corrections.