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Advocates urge lawmakers to improve system, not just new prison

SHARE Advocates urge lawmakers to improve system, not just new prison

SALT LAKE CITY — Ryan Allison was a 22-year-old inmate at the Utah State Prison who took his own life in October by diving head first into his own cell floor.

Allison was diagnosed with a serious mental illness that caused him to suffer near constant auditory and visual hallucinations, said Aaron Kinikini, legal director of the Utah Disability Law Center. His misbehavior resulting from his illness led to persistent infractions and punishment within the prison.

Between 2011 and 2013, Allison spent more than 580 days in solitary confinement.

Kinikini told Allison’s story Monday as advocacy groups gathered on behalf of Utahns struggling with mental or substance abuse disorders and those who become trapped in the state’s criminal justice system.

The advocates, from organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, Odyssey House, and New Roads Behavioral Health, assembled to urge lawmakers to remember the state’s most vulnerable citizens and what needs to be done to improve Utah’s correctional system rather than continue fighting about where to build the new prison.

The Legislature is currently considering five potential sites for the 4,000-bed facility, including a site near the Salt Lake City International Airport, and others near Eagle Mountain and Grantsville. The issue has sparked controversy and public concerns of having a prison in their communities’ backyards.

Lawmakers have also been debating whether or not the Legislature’s Prison Relocation Commission should have the final say for the new location, but a bill requiring the full Legislature to vote on the issue was approved by a House committee Friday.

ACLU public policy advocate Anna Brower said the “objective needs of our criminal justice and correctional system should determine where the prison goes,” and Utah’s lawmakers and members of the public must remember that the prison relocation’s debate “is not just a fight between real estate developers and communities that don’t want to host the prison.”

“The prison relocation process must continue despite all the recent, noisy political explosions over the potential site,” Brower said. “We get it. Nobody wants a prison.”

She said the “political reality” of the prison’s relocation means the process is going to be “very difficult and emotionally heated.”

“But the political reality also guarantees that nobody will ever build a better prison in Utah unless there is an economic motive to do so — and moving the prison is that motive,” she said.

Brower said advocacy groups have been “pleasantly surprised and inspired” by lawmakers’ attention to the need for criminal justice reform and the progress of that initiative, HB348, this session. However, Jean Hill from the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, said with only four days left in the 2015 session, it’s “imperative” that lawmakers reach consensus soon on other issues along with criminal justice reform, not only regarding the prison relocation, but also health care expansion.

“It all matters,” Hill said. “If we come out of the session with a health care plan that doesn’t include mental health and substance abuse components, then we’ve made the criminal justice reform process a lot more difficult.”

Hill said that’s because 80 to 90 percent of the state’s prison population suffer from mental illness or substance abuse problems. She said if those people don’t receive the treatment they need before, during or after incarceration — which would be best facilitated through criminal justice and health care reform — then lawmakers won’t “resolve the issues that are leading to the state’s high recidivism rates.”

“It’s not to create a luxury environment, but it is to create an environment that doesn’t make things worse,” Hill said.

While the criminal justice reform initiative appears to be advancing “smoothly” through the legislative process, the stalemate regarding health care expansion is discouraging, Hill said.

“The health care piece of this must be resolved before the session is over,” she said.

Other issues aside, Hill said the current prison and its system doesn’t foster an environment that is suitable for rehabilitation, with outdated structures that present safety risks to both inmates and correctional officers, as well as impractical accommodations for treatment programs.

So the new prison should not only be built with modern technology to enable best safety practices for both inmates and correctional officers, but also at a location that is accessible to experienced employees and providers, as well as in close proximity to treatment facilities, Brower said.

Brower said the prison relocation is a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to serve the interest of all people who are so easily ignored or are trapped in the criminal justice system.”

Kinikini said up to 50 percent of all jail or prison inmates suffer from serious or persistent mental illness, and he said the Utah State Prison administration reports only about 25 clinicians and therapists serve 2,000 inmates. He added the state prison does not currently have enough beds in its psychiatric wing to accommodate the “number of inmates who desperately need treatment rather than punitive isolation,” like solitary confinement.

Brower said the proposed criminal justice reform will start preventing prison beds from being occupied by struggling citizens rather than true criminals. But for those troubled Utahns who still land behind bars, she said the state needs the facilities to “adequately keep people safe from themselves and others," and correctional officers shouldn't have to "resort" to solitary confinement to do so.

“Solitary confinement will make a normal person mentally ill,” she said. “It will make a mentally ill person suicidal.”

Jamie Justice, executive director of the Utah branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said as the 2015 legislative session draws closer to an end, she’s “hopeful” lawmakers will listen to the needs of communities as well as the advocates speaking for the state’s troubled residents who are caught in a criminal justice system that is currently doing “more harm than good.”

“I think (lawmakers) will buckle down, and they’ll take advantage of this week to really do something to impact our folks for good,” Justice said.

Email: kmckellar@deseretnews.com