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Rep. Jason Chaffetz wants Utah to look again at moving state prison

SHARE Rep. Jason Chaffetz wants Utah to look again at moving state prison

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah should take another look at moving the aging state prison from Point of the Mountain, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said Thursday.

Meanwhile, prison officials are warning again that if they do not receive additional state funding, they will have to release inmates due to overcrowding.

Chaffetz told the Deseret News that being named to the House Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee will allow him to look at ways to make the move economically feasible for the state.

In 2005, then-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. ordered a study of what it would cost to move the 675-acre prison in Draper to free up the property for development. The study found the price tag was prohibitive.

Chaffetz, who was Huntsman's chief of staff at the time of the study, said the federal government could help pick up some of the cost through long-term contracts to house federal prisoners.

"Anything you do — including nothing — is expensive to the state," the congressman said. The prison is "literally crumbling," he said, and costs a fortune to maintain.

"I want to work closely with the state," Chaffetz said. "I'm curious if there is a model that could include the federal government."

Any move, though, is likely a decade away. "This is not going to happen overnight," he said. "It's not No. 1 on my list, but it is important and I will spend some time on it."

At the time of the 2005 study, Tooele County was seen as a potential location for a new state prison. In 2008, the Draper City Council and the Salt Lake County Council passed resolutions asking the state to reconsider a move.

Gov. Gary Herbert's spokeswoman, Ally Isom, said he "feels moving the prison may be a good idea, as it's not the optimal use for that site, but he questions whether it is a feasible idea. He's uncertain about the costs affiliated with relocation and transition."

Isom said the governor, who served as Huntsman's lieutenant governor, would not be opposed to another study. Huntsman found a move would cost $461 million, but bring in only as much as $93 million from the sale of the land. Some said the study undervalued the land.

Draper officials are pushing for the move.

"Draper City is very aware of the ongoing discussions about the issue," Mayor Darrell Smith said. "Moving the prison would be of great value to Utah, providing an economic benefit to the state and the Draper community."

Utah Department of Corrections spokesman Steve Gehrke declined to comment on whether moving the 60-year-old prison is a good idea but said the department would be ready to implement any decision made by lawmakers.

"Once they tell us to do it, we'll certainly do it," he said. "We're fully capable of doing it."

The state prison system is already slightly over capacity with just under 7,000 inmates, Tom Patterson, director of UDOC, told a legislative budget committee Tuesday. If the system operates over capacity for 45 days, state law triggers an emergency release.

Patterson asked for $4.9 million to transfer more prisoners to the state's 21 county jails. UDOC pays the jails $45 a day for each inmate.

If the department doesn't get that money and approval to build a 300-bed parole violator center, it will be impossible to avoid the automatic release, he said.

A New Jersey-based company planned to build the center in an industrial area near downtown Salt Lake City, but backed out after city officials expressed concerns in late 2008 and the Legislature withdrew $6 million for the project. The center would be similar to a halfway house, allowing parole violators to maintain community ties and hold jobs while undergoing treatment. UDOC now plans to operate the center itself somewhere on the Wasatch Front.

With that facility and the added transfers to county jails, UDOC would not need a planned new pod at the Gunnison prison until 2015, Patterson said.

"We are a fast-growing state, and that also equates to growing crime rates as well," he said. "We will have to plan for growth."

He told legislators about half of parolees return to prison within a year. The state prison has been adding 10 to 15 inmates each month.

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