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As Promised: Prison Relocation (and more)

18 February 2015 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

2015-Criminal-Justice-ReformSo is prison relocation REALLY connected to criminal justice reform? Probably, in terms of behind-the-scenes politicking. But ALSO in more nuanced way.

This update was prepared by Anna Brower, Public Policy Advocate.

You may have seen this piece on Fox 13 News - compliments of Ben Winslow - earlier this week, which covers the Utah Department of Corrections' presentation to a legislative appropriations. Winslow picks up on the fact that, for UDC, criminal justice reform is closely linked with the prison relocation. According to UDC, as well as others in the state's criminal justice system, it will be hard to effectively enact new, research-driven programming (with the goal of reducing recidivism) given the facility limitations at Draper. The Fox 13 story doesn't get into the specifics, but some of these issues have come up in the last two years during prison relocation discussions.

For example:

  • While criminal justice reform in the coming years will hopefully divert many mentally ill people from even entering prison in the first place, we still do have many people at the State Prison currently who do suffer from serious and persistent mental illness. The facilities at Draper were not built with this reality in mind; many advocates, including the ACLU of Utah and the Disability Law Center, assert that the way mentally ill offenders are incarcerated is actually making their health WORSE while they are in prison. Since most of these individuals will be eventually released to the community, we worry that this treatment is not only inhumane, but a threat to public safety.
  • Even a couple of decades ago, there was little appreciation for the different needs of FEMALE inmates.The female prison population - in Utah and nationally - has been growing much faster than the male population in recent years, and correctional facilities are struggling to keep up. UDC has piloted some innovative programming - particularly in Adult Probations & Parole - that is "gender-responsive" and "trauma-informed," which research shows is more effective at rehabilitating female inmates (and reducing their recidivism rates). But with Utah's female prison inmates being housed in a facility originally designed for young adult men, this innovative programming is struggling to take root on the Institutional Operations side. A new facility for female inmates, actually DESIGNED for them (safer bunk beds, better visiting areas for children, private therapy rooms), could make a big difference for these women, most of whom are non-violent offenders.
  • To improve staff morale and effectiveness (as well as to enhance staff safety), Director Cook has discussed improving the working environment for correctional officers and support staff. The current Draper facilities do not uniformly meet national correctional standards for staff safety and mental health - improving life for correctional officers has been linked to improved treatment and outcomes for inmates.

The Prison Relocation Commission meeting that was cancelled last Friday was rescheduled for the END of this month: Friday, Feb. 27, 1:00 p.m. in Senate Room 210. Why? No specific reason has been given, but it seems clear that the strong pushback from the identified potential sites has thrown a wrench in the works of the PRC. There is great momentum to move the prison - NOT just from developers, but from correctional innovators and some prisoners' rights advocates - but communities are still resistant to host a new facility. Some folks are coming around to the possibilities a new facility presents: check out this recent thought-provoking Op-Ed by ACLU supporter Kendall Robins in the Salt Lake Tribune. Lawmakers and administrators don't want to give up on a new facility - they know that nobody will EVER fund building a better prison (most people just don't bother to think about the needs of prisoners, correctional officers, and prison volunteers), unless there are some funds to be recovered by moving the prison out of Draper - so I sense that they are regrouping to figure out how to move forward.

So is prison relocation REALLY connected to criminal justice reform? Probably, in terms of behind-the-scenes politicking. But ALSO in more nuanced way. As I asserted in a recent Salt Lake Tribune Op-Ed reform is needed to avoid building a THIRD prison in Utah. Even if the Utah State Prison stays in Draper, in the next 20 years, we'll need to build a new prison to house the 2,700+ inmates that we will have, if we don't reform our criminal justice system. Which means fighting this "Not In My Backyard!" fight again in just a few years. And building a brand new prison might just increase Utah's appetite for criminal justice reform - what lawmaker is going to want to ask for MORE prison-building appropriations in just five or ten years to add hundreds of beds to a facility we are still paying off? As long as the new prison is no larger than the current facility at Draper, we may be looking at a natural fiscal cap for our prison population for years to come (because the state is about maxed out on the number of medically-appropriate, low-risk inmates it can disperse out to the county jails).

I'm sure this won't be close to the last word on the Prison Relocation this session - stay tuned. As always, if you have questions or concerns about anything in these emails, feel free to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. And, of course, feel free to share this update with others.