UTAH STATE PRISON — Sitting up in one of the narrow beds crammed against the walls in a nearly 50-year-old building that serves as a makeshift geriatric unit, inmate Francis McKay said he knows where the new prison should be built.
"Right here," McKay tells a group of reporters on a tour of the prison Thursday.
Several of the inmates in surrounding beds offer the same answer even faster than McKay, but they're hard to hear above the whirring of fans set up to cool the stuffy dormitory-like room in the prison's oldest Oquirrh building.
"We've got enough land to build a new prison right here," McKay said, describing what he's seen after spending the past 20 years "off and on" in prison, currently for a parole violation after serving time for aggravated sex abuse of a child.
"The buildings are crumbling, literally," he said, describing holes in the walls of "Dog Block" in the original Wasatch building opened in 1951, cracked floors and numerous problems in the winter, including freezing pipes.
A new facility, McKay suggests, also would make it easier to protect inmates from each other.
"You should have a better area for housing," he said, as a few feet away, another inmate lies motionless in bed under several layers of clothing. "You've got a lot of different cultures that don't get along that have to be separated."
The prison officials accompanying the tour made a similar case for building a new 4,000-bed facility to replace the myriad aging buildings within the nearly 700 acres of prime real estate at Point of the Mountain in Draper.
But they're much more cautious about discussing where a new prison should be built, calling that a decision that's in the hands of the Legislature's Prison Relocation Commission.
"That's up to the policymakers to make that decision. They've got the purse strings," Utah Department of Corrections Deputy Director Mike Haddon said. "What we contribute to the dialogue is, this is what the department needs."
It's a long list, since Haddon said only "one or two" buildings at the prison are in acceptable shape, "but the rest, we're holding together with baling wire and duct tape."
There are four locations under consideration for a new prison, in Salt Lake City west of the Salt Lake City International Airport, in Eagle Mountain and in Fairfield in Utah County, and in Grantsville near the Wal-Mart distribution center in Tooele County.
Draper is off the list, but at three open houses recently held by the state to showcase the benefits of a prison to those communities, angry residents asked again and again why the prison couldn't simply be rebuilt at Point of the Mountain.
Thursday, prison officials pointed to massive power lines and roads slicing through the property as reasons for relocation. A drive along the backside of the Draper site showed there are also undeveloped fields filled with grazing cattle.
The most often cited reason for moving the prison, however, is the value of the vast tract of land tucked alongside I-15 in the high-tech corridor dubbed Utah's "Silicon Slopes."
Should the state decide the prison should stay put, that means forgoing an estimated $1.8 billion economic impact from developing the Draper site, according to state consultants. And that leaves little incentive to invest a projected $550 million to build a new facility.
"It's difficult to tell exactly what might happen in that particular case," Haddon said. "If it was ultimately decided that they would build on site there would be a question of would they actually do it. That would be a question for sure."
During the tour, warden Scott Crowther pointed out repeatedly how the prison staff has had to deal with outmoded layouts and equipment, including cramped control rooms where the lights are kept turned off so inmates can't see inside.
"Look at the conditions. It's just dark. This is what our employees work in every single day," Crowther said. It takes a few minutes for a corrections officer to find the light switch and demonstrate the reverse effect of the mirrored windows.
"Staff morale is an issue. Safety and security is an issue," the warden said, noting there's no view inside the inmate cells from the control room. "If we're in here, who controls the unit? The reality is, if we're in here, the offenders control the unit."
Despite the drawbacks, Haddon said, prison officials have become "really good at making things work based on whatever it is we have," squeezing in programs aimed at helping inmates succeed after they're released.
In one of the Timpanogos buildings set aside for women inmates, Whitney Santistevan trotted out a rescue dog named Echo that she's training to assist a veteran.
"It's changed my life a lot," she said. "It's looking at these animals and knowing their history, it tears my heart. Like knowing we're kind of coming from the same thing. People experience the same things."
Santistevan, who had spent about three years in prison on retail theft and other charges before being returned in April on a parole violation, said the dog training program is preparing her to succeed on the outside.
"In my past I've had drug issues, but helping these dogs really is helping my life and its changing my life, and making me have a better perspective on life," she said. "It's awesome because when I get out of here I have a job doing this."
While a new prison might offer more programs for inmates, Santistevan said she doesn't intend to be incarerated long enough to benefit from them.
"For sure. I hope never to come back so I can see it on the news and not from here," she said. "Before I came to prison, I never would have imagined myself here. It was scary. But when I got here, it's more of like rehab to me."