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Total of inmates hits record high at Utah prisons

The population at Utah's prisons reached an all-time high of 6,001 inmates this week.

The number reached Monday is a "milestone but not a crisis," said state fiscal analyst Bill Greer, who along with state Department of Corrections officials monitors the daily population.

Should the inmate total top 6,008 and maintain that number for 45 days, the prison would be mandated by law to begin early releases, Greer said.

That's not likely to happen, corrections spokesman Jack Ford said.

"No matter what it takes, we will rent county jail beds or open the Lone Peak building, even if we don't have staff for it, if we need to," Ford said.

On Tuesday — the weekly release date — the population total dropped again, but by less than 30 inmates. During the past year, the average number of those entering the system has outpaced the number going out, Ford said.

DOC officials have talked about crowding problems at the prison for more than a year. In February, the Board of Pardons and Parole released early more than a dozen women inmates to ease crowding.

Maximum inmate capacity at the Draper prison site is 3,615; the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison can house 1,125, Ford said. DOC manages the overflow through contracts with the state's county jails, where about 1,300 inmates are housed. That is also an all-time high for the system, Ford said.

On paper, however, there really isn't a serious problem, acting DOC executive director Scott Carver said.

The unused Lone Peak facility at the prison can house up to 300 inmates in dormitory-style housing. That facility is undergoing a $1.3 million renovation and isn't expected to be ready until January.

"As soon as we get our modifications and security upgrades done, we'll be moving," Carver said. "We have contingency plans. We are using money from last year's jail contracting budget to buy up the excess county jail beds."

If needed, Carver can also talk to the parole board about moving up release dates for some inmates and low-risk offenders.

Still, the inmate population appears to be growing faster than even prison officials have predicted. In August, Carver told legislators that the projected annual increase was 257 inmates. Women inmates are growing at a faster rate than men — at about 6 percent annually, Ford said.

Greer said that since June of this year, 200 new inmates have entered the system.

"That might be an anomaly, but at that rate they will outpace projections," Greer said. "There are always some ways to do some shifting around, ways to do programming, but they are going to need some additional funding."

Tight budget times have shrunk the DOC budget by about $23 million over the past three budget seasons, and Greer and Carver agree that some new money for growth will be needed to accommodate future growth.

In 2005, lawmakers can expect a request from DOC for roughly an additional $15 million to build more housing units at the Gunnison facility, Carver said. Additional funds would also be needed to staff those units, which would probably not open until fiscal year 2006-2007.

Gov. Olene Walker was made aware of this week's high numbers but has not discussed holding a special session to address prison funding, spokeswoman Amanda Covington said. A special session was considered in August, but there was no support for the idea among legislative leaders.