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Utahns tell prison relocation commission: 'Keep it in Draper'

SALT LAKE CITY — Eighty-two-year-old Alexandra Eframo shook her fists Tuesday while testifying before the Legislature's Prison Relocation Commission to show how strongly she felt about keeping the Utah State Prison in Draper.

Eframo, a retired airline reservations clerk from West Jordan, was one of dozens of Utahns who slammed the prison move at the commission's first and only public hearing at the Capitol.

As the clock limiting speakers to two minutes counted down, Eframo scolded the commission, saying they were not listening to the public — a message repeated throughout the three-hour hearing that drew an overflow crowd.

"Do you need hearing aids?" Eframo demanded. "I am livid. This process is abominable."

Four sites are being considered to replace the prison: in Salt Lake City west of 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.

The commission is expected to recommend a site for the $550 million, 4,000-bed project by Aug. 1. Gov. Gary Herbert has said he will call lawmakers into special session to consider the choice.

Eagle Mountain Mayor Chris Pengra was the first to address the lawmakers and state officials on the commission. Like representatives from the other communities that may end up with a new prison, Pengra said the aging facility should stay put.

"This entire process has been extremely disappointing to me," Pengra said, chiding the commission for not communicating with residents. "I believe this decision has already been made. I believe we're going through the motions now."

Even though commission co-chairman Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, reminded the audience that lawmakers had already voted to find a new location for the Point of the Mountain prison, speaker after speaker spoke against the move.

Several raised concerns about the influence of developers on the move, which will free up nearly 700 acres of prime real estate located along the so-called "Silicon Slopes" technology corridor in Salt Lake and Utah counties near I-15.

Rep. Fred Cox, R-West Valley City, a critic of the move, urged his fellow lawmakers to vote against whatever recommendation the commission ultimately makes. He said there is plenty of room to improve the prison on the Draper site.

"There are 200 acres just sitting there," Cox said. "Draper will benefit if we move it, but I believe the rest of the county will not benefit if we move. Nor will the rest of the state."

A few of the people who filled the more than 200 seats in the hearing room and spilled out to four overflow rooms spoke in favor of moving the prison, focusing on the benefits a more modern facility would have on inmate recidivism.

"I see things a little bit differently," said former state prison inmate Kenneth O'Rourke, who spoke in favor of relocating the facility. "On the outside, it looks like it's debatable whether it's a good idea. But on the inside, it's not."

O'Rourke said he first went to prison at 17, "and they put me in this cell probably built in the '20s. It looked like a submarine tank, and the light didn't work, and I was sitting in there in the dark, eating with my hands and by myself."

Inmates had to shove blankets in the windows to keep out the cold, he said, because "the water in our toilet was freezing. From a brick and mortar perspective, there's a justification."

A new prison is also an opportunity to offer better treatment options to keep inmates from returning to prison, O'Rourke said.

Anna Brower, public policy advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union, said she was there to support a prison move as a resident of Salt Lake County. She said the ACLU has not taken a position on where the prison should go.

"I want the prison to move. And as a resident of Salt Lake, I want it to move here," Brower said, saying Salt Lake City is the most "civil liberties and social justice sensitive city in the state" and the only place she would trust to house a new prison.

"'Keep it in Draper' essentially means keep it status quo. That is, keep it ineffective, falling apart, dangerous and intolerable," she said, warning, "without the prison relocation, there will be no new prison."

The hearing ended earlier than the three hours scheduled after everyone who signed up to speak had a turn before the commission. Stevenson, who had said he hoped participants would not be "obnoxious," praised the crowd for their decorum.

House Majority Assistant Whip Brad Wilson, R-Layton, the commission's other co-chairman, told reporters after the hearing the public's concerns are being taken seriously.

"I feel good about the process," Wilson said. "I think it's been the most public and open process the state has ever had in locating a building — and probably ever will have."

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