Overall public conversation surrounding relocation of the Utah State Prison has lacked a critical component: What will be built in the final location?
While important, the prison’s location is only part of what must be considered. Will we build another unconstitutional and inhumane cage — as we have now — that creates dismal offender outcomes, or will we build something based on modern-day best practices: something that rehabilitates rather than abuses and neglects? Will we continue the current practice of exacerbating issues that landed offenders in prison in the first place, or will we do something constructive?
I often hear people speak of their constitutional rights; when there is a perceived threat to any of these rights, many people invoke the U.S. Constitution in an effort to bolster their argument as to why something should or should not be done in a particular instance. While there is nothing wrong with arguing as a constitutionalist — indeed, it is an intelligent way of doing so — it must be done without regard to whose rights are in need of protection. When the Constitution is applied equally, in all matters, we have the rule of law.
But when the Constitution is applied selectively, in ways that serve only the views or interests of the interpreter, then we have something we might call the “rule of will,” which is to mean the will of the interpreter. This is the inconsistent application of law in a manner designed to serve the interests of those wielding power — a tool historically utilized by tyrants and an outcome the U.S. Constitution was specifically designed to prevent.
While there are many examples of leaders in our government exhibiting the behavior of tyrants, there are ways for us, as free people, to resolve these matters — at the ballot box and, if necessary, in the courts. People in prison, however, have little recourse if their constitutional rights are violated; they have no truly effective voice and therefore need greater protection — even if some of them are not ideal citizens.
If a prisoner attempts to raise concerns about his treatment, through a grievance, for example, retaliation by prison staff is a legitimate fear. Since many people may not particularly like a prisoner whose rights have been violated, they simply look the other way or rationalize to themselves why the abuse was or is acceptable. Some of the same people doing this rationalizing then get upset if attempts are made to encroach upon their constitutional rights.
Any time government encroaches upon the constitutional rights of a citizen, incarcerated or not, our collective rights are threatened, because if such behavior goes unanswered, the next time it might be your rights that get violated.
As someone who spent many years incarcerated, I know outcomes will improve if prisoners are helped rather than abused and neglected, as many currently are. I would ask the Legislature and Prison Relocation Commission to consider these thoughts while they debate the merits or lack thereof regarding sites for a new state prison.
Economic reality dictates that the prison must be moved if we are to build a new one, constructed in a manner that is conducive to rehabilitation. Despite myriad constitutional and humanitarian problems with the current state prison, the Legislature is most likely unwilling to pay for construction of a new one unless there is an economic incentive for doing so. If construction costs are defrayed by economic activity from redeveloping the current prison site in Draper, then the Legislature may be willing to build a real “correctional facility,” rather than keeping the current humanitarian disaster we call a prison.
Ben Aldana, a former federal prison inmate, is a member of People Not Prisons, a coalition of advocacy organizations working for criminal justice reform and humane treatment within the criminal justice system.