Two things are rising so fast right now you can do little more than watch and wonder. One is the stock market. The other is the estimated cost of building Utah’s new prison.
The only difference between the two is that reasonable people believe the stock market eventually will fall.
If you’re watching from afar, you may still be angry that lawmakers decided to move the prison from Draper, where it has stood since 1951. You may want to find those old picket signs and start rallying again.
You need to let go. That decision isn’t going to be reversed. The countdown clock is ticking at the Draper site.
However, you should be worried that those costs may be jeopardizing something more important — the unique character of Utah’s largest penitentiary in a remarkably consolidated corrections system.
Back in August of 2015, a study of prison relocation by MGT of America described how unusual it is to have only two state prisons, with the largest of these, in Draper, housing 53 percent of the state’s inmates in about 4,000 beds.
The study said most prisons in the U.S. house between 500 and 2,000 inmates. Most states operate many more than two prisons. Even Wyoming, with roughly one-fifth of Utah’s population, has five. Nevada has nine, and Arkansas operates 15.
Having one dominant prison in the state’s largest metropolitan area is good for a number of reasons. It allows for economies of scale. The state can consolidate health care services for inmates. Prison administration offices are located there, as is the main intake center. Transportation to and from courts is quick and easy.
Add to that the tremendous strength of community volunteers, many of them regular members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who are called to serve the facility. The report said the prison has 1,300 volunteers who provide support, counseling and programming. They save the state considerable money each year, but the truth is the state likely wouldn’t be able to replace much of what they do at any cost.
So here’s the concern: As the cost of building the new prison rises, state officials have few options other than cutting beds. Jim Russell, director of the state Division of Facilities Construction and Management, told lawmakers, quite reasonably, that the state can’t sacrifice safety or security.
As a result, the new prison now is on track to house 400 fewer inmates than the one in Draper. Even then, officials insist the best they can do is get the projected cost down to just under $700 million.
As a point of reference, the first estimates, in 2014, were in the $460 million range.
Last April, prison officials said they didn’t want to leave room for expansion within the new prison’s walls because that would risk safety. Russell told lawmakers the state may want to look at building a separate location rather than expanding somewhere else on the new prison site.
That would mean building a third prison somewhere in Utah, which would be another step toward ruining the unique nature of Utah’s prison system.
That unique system may be doomed eventually anyway by the state’s growth rate. More people means proportionately more convicted criminals, even if the state works hard to find alternatives to prison (home confinement, treatment, etc.).
But the state has a unique opportunity right now to build a facility that keeps it going for a while. The new site is close enough to the metro area to still attract nearby volunteers.
It’s instructive to note that politicians seldom overestimate the cost of a project they dearly desire, just as they seldom underestimate its economic benefits.
What are easy to ignore, however, are the intangibles that provide real benefits.
Prisons are among the most important facilities a government can build and operate. As Nelson Mandela once said, a society should be judged not “by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
Certainly, costs should be kept as low as possible. But if Utah loses the unique nature of a prison system that keeps most of its inmates in one facility where they interact with the surrounding community, it will have lost something invaluable.