SALT LAKE CITY — The population at the Utah State Prison grew by 257 inmates in the past year, the largest 12-month increase in at least 20 years.
The total inmate count as of June 15 was 6,766, according to figures prison officials provided to the legislative Executive Offices and Criminal Justice Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday.
The state houses prisoners in facilities in Draper, Gunnison and various county jails.
Based on current capacity, the state has 199 beds available, according to the report.
"That’s causing us some sense of alarm," said Mike Haddon, executive director of the Utah Department of Corrections. "We are running out of beds."
The rising population comes as the state builds a new prison west of the Salt Lake City International Airport, estimated to cost as much as $800 million. The new prison, anticipated to be complete at the end of 2021, will have 3,600 beds compared to 4,000 at the current Draper prison. Officials, however, have capped the Draper site at 3,600 to match the new prison capacity.
"There's lots of questions about the increases," Hutchings said. "There's already been some media inquiries. Word's out. People are wondering what’s up."
Haddon couldn't readily answer those questions Tuesday but said he's pulling the state's criminal justice agencies together to figure out what's driving the rising prison population.
"That's what we're digging into," he said.
Haddon attributed some of the increase to more probation and parole revocations and parolees having to stay an extra two or three months because suitable transitional housing isn't available in the community. He said officials need to consider whether those who commit "low-level" probation or parole violations should be returned to prison.
The Draper prison could reopen two cell blocks and a dorm to provide more beds, but that is not an ideal solution because of low staffing and having to pay mandatory overtime, he said.
Extra bunks could also be added at the Gunnison site without having to add security, and county jails could also provide more beds, Haddon said, adding that all those solutions would be temporary.
Haddon said the growth is unsustainable without determining what's driving the "unusual" trend.
Looking at the 18-month period from July 2018 to May 2019, the prison population increased by 362 inmates — 249 men and 113 women, an average of 21 new prisoners a month.
As of last month, there was 13,197 people on probation and 4,199 on parole in the state system.
Hutchings said officials can't ignore the state's increasing population as it plans for the new prison. It would be "reckless," he said, not to provide enough prison beds.
If that means putting another pod on the new site, "we have to start talking about that pretty freakin' fast," Haddon added.
He said the state lost 80 beds when Daggett County closed its jail and will lose another 80 because Weber County isn't renewing its contract to house state inmates in its jail.
Tooele County has agreed to accept state inmates and Cache County also will take up some of the slack, he said.