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Corrections director 'nervous' new prison will have fewer beds

SALT LAKE CITY — Rollin Cook, executive director of the state Department of Corrections, said Wednesday he's worried the size of the new state prison being built near the Salt Lake City International Airport will shrink.

"I'll say it for you. I'm nervous when you say you'll take away beds," Cook told members of the Legislature's Prison Development Commission during a discussion about whether 4,000 beds were still needed in the new facility.

Although the Utah State Prison in Draper that's being replaced can hold about 4,000 inmates, Cook said there are around 3,000 currently incarcerated thanks in part to a state initiative to curb recidivism.

But Cook cautioned that number has increased over the past month or so because some inmates released from prison are "not succeeding in the community" and are being brought back behind bars.

The commission's co-chairman, incoming House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said the state will need to decide whether or not to scale back the design of the new prison, set for completion in November 2020.

The concern comes as costs for the prison are climbing. In addition to the $550 million already budgeted for the facility, another $100 million will be needed for roads, utilities and other infrastructure on the undeveloped site.

The state estimates that more than $35 million of the infrastructure costs will be repaid by Salt Lake City and the property owners in the area benefiting from the improvements.

And although the design is yet to be finalized, it appears the new prison will be about 100,000 square feet larger than the 1.2 million square feet originally anticipated in the budget.

The cost escalation is the "real deal," Jim Russell, assistant director of the state Division of Facilities Construction and Management, told the commission. He said costs could go up further on the site, which includes areas of wetlands.

Actual construction work on the site is not expected to get underway until next May. No decisions were made at the commission meeting, which also included a report on mitigating the environmental impacts on birds.

After the meeting, the commission's other co-chairman, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said he expected the new prison to remain at 4,000 beds, although some could be built later if it is determined they're not needed right away.

"My feeling is, we're going to have one chance to do this right," he said, so the ultimate size of the prison should not be changed. "We're anticipating 3 million new people here. So we know this is going to go up."

Stevenson, the incoming Senate budget chairman, said there are concerns about the growing price tag for the project. He said he wants to avoid a situation similar to the airport expansion, which is costing $350 million more than expected.

Cook told reporters after the meeting that the prison population has dropped over a three-year period because of efforts made to lower incarceration rates through changes in sentencing, parole and probation.

"We kind of get stuck in the middle," he said. "We're finally making some strides of doing some things (in) criminal justice right. Why are you now going to say you're not going to build those beds?"