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Jay Evensen: Utah has to get prison construction right

Construction continues on the new Utah State Prison west of the Salt Lake International Airport in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 18, 2019.
Construction continues on the new Utah State Prison west of the Salt Lake International Airport in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 18, 2019.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

The last thing the state needs is to dedicate its new prison next year and immediately declare a prison crisis.

After hundreds of millions of dollars and acrimonious debates over whether the state needed to replace the Draper facility and where the new one should go, politicians would only add to public distrust and anger if they cut the ribbon and then scrambled for ways to find more beds to house a prison population that doesn’t fit what they built.

At a meeting of the Legislature’s Executive Offices and Criminal Justice Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday, corrections officials said the state’s prison population grew more during the last year than at any time in at least the last 20 years. A total of 257 more inmates entered the system, leading to a total count of 6,766 spread out among state prisons in Draper and Gunnison and in several county jails that contract with the state to house certain prisoners for a fee.

The report on prisoner growth said the state has only 199 beds left for future miscreants. Draper’s aging facility could house 4,000. However, the new prison being constructed to replace it, near Salt Lake International Airport, is being built to accommodate just 3,600.

You do the math.

While officials have cut Draper’s population to 3,600 to prepare for the transition, it’s worth noting that the original idea was to build a new place with 4,000 beds, but that total shrank in 2016 because of money concerns.

Back then, the executive director of the Department of Corrections, Rollin Cook, said, “I’m nervous when you say you’ll take away beds.” Today’s director, Mike Haddon, said of the ratio of the growing inmate population to available beds, “That’s causing us some sense of alarm.”

I get the feeling that, in both instances, the directors were understating their true feelings.

I hope so, anyway.

In most areas of government, austerity is a virtue. Too many city halls have grand atriums and ornate pillars that far outweigh the zoning, water, sewer and public works decisions that occupy much of the time of those who work inside.

But public safety is no place to scrimp. The obligation to remove dangerous people from society, incarcerate them and, one hopes, rehabilitate them is the most serious, sacred duty of government. It is an awesome responsibility.

And while state leaders still have an obligation to hold the line on expenses involving taxpayer funds for prison construction, they should not use the lack of money as an excuse to build something less than what is needed.

No one seems to know why the prison population is growing so quickly. Three years ago, Cook said the state was using changes in sentencing, parole and probation to reduce the inmate population. People’s attitudes about appropriate punishments for certain crimes were changing.

And yet, here we are. Perhaps it’s not surprising that one of the nation’s fastest growing states also has a fast-growing prison population. In addition to inmates, Utah had 4,199 people on parole and 13,197 on probation as of last month, all an infraction away from returning to a cell.

As regular readers of this column know, I was a skeptic of the need to abandon the Draper site and build an entirely new facility. Lawmakers, anxious to open prime land for development along what has become known as Silicon Slopes, never did a serious study of the merits of rebuilding on site. They tended to discount how, because of its proximity to neighborhoods, the Draper site has developed a unique volunteer system that helps both inmates and the surrounding community.

It’s too late to revisit that decision now. But it’s not too late to decide to build a prison big enough to meet the state’s growing demand.

As Haddon told lawmakers on Tuesday, they could plan to build an additional pod at the new prison, but “we have to start talking about that pretty freakin’ fast.”

He’s right, and while they’re talking “freakin’ fast,” they shouldn’t be afraid to raise taxes a little to build what is necessary. Despite all the missteps leading up to it, opening day at the new prison, two years from now, should be a day of celebration, not worry.