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A peek inside new Utah prison as first cells are stacked in place ‘like Legos’

Price tag is now north of $800 million as construction costs continue to escalate; crews detail unique challenges of remote Salt Lake City site

SHARE A peek inside new Utah prison as first cells are stacked in place ‘like Legos’

Construction crews install a men’s maximum security cell module at the new state prison in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Crews in hard hats kept working despite a steady drizzle of rain pattering in the gravel and mud — but when lightning flashed in the distance followed by a low rumble of thunder, that was their cue.

“Oh, siren, where’s the siren?” said Marilee Richins, deputy director of the state Department of Administrative Services, who helped guide a tour of the new state prison’s construction site on Wednesday.

The alarm signals to construction crews to stop working and seek shelter — something they rarely do save for threat of lightning in the vast stretch of undeveloped Salt Lake City land where the new state prison was sited, west of the airport and miles away from any existing infrastructure.

“They work through rain, they work through snow,” said Michael Ambre, assistant director of special projects for the Division of Facilities Construction and Management, who oversees the prison’s construction.

Lightning is just one unique challenge crews face while building the new corrections facility to replace the Utah State Prison in Draper. Not only have crews had to start from scratch — bringing miles of roads and utility lines to the remote construction site — but they’ve also had to battle sinking soil and environmental sensitivity in an area known for wetlands and migratory birds.

To prepare for buildings — which just in recent weeks have finally begun rising — crews have had to prepare the ground by inserting drains and trucking in massive amounts of soil to lay the foundation, which still sinks about 10 inches as its allowed to settle for up to 90 days before its ready for more fill. Finally comes the building itself.

Throughout construction, Richins said they’ve hired a specialist to walk the site and be on the lookout for birds — including nesting owls — so crews can work around them.

As for the project itself, crews have spent months on the intricate, underground network of utility lines and electrical infrastructure needed to support the hypersecure facility — which Richins said is why it’s taken so long for the public to finally begin seeing building walls rising at the site, barely visible from motorists driving by on I-80.

“When you consider what has to happen out here, it’s amazing,” Richins said. “We’re basically building a small city.”

For a prison that will house about 3,600 inmates, about 1,200 employees and at times 2,000 volunteers, Richins’ characterization of a “small city” isn’t an exaggeration.

The massive project has run into a wide array of challenges, both on and off the construction site. The once $650 million price tag has continued to climb with escalating construction costs in the current market’s building boom. Those costs continue to rise today due to President Donald Trump’s tariffs on China and construction costs, Richins said.

It’s now surpassed $800 million, Richins said, though she declined to give a final number, noting “we still have some precarious procurements to make.” The Utah Legislature approved roughly $900 million in bonding authority for the project.

“Just because we have the authority doesn’t mean we will spend all of that, but it does mean our project is fully funded,” Richins said.

Additionally, the project was delayed as project managers, faced with rising costs, pushed pause for several months to redesign the facilities for savings — reducing the planned 4,000-bed prison to 3,600 beds.

“I mean, they went through the minutiae,” Richins said, crediting Ambre and his team for finding more than $110 million in cost savings. She said the Legislature’s original “lowball” budget number has “really forced us to stretch,” and she credited state officials for that “strategy” to create cost efficiencies.

“By giving us that lower number we literally have gone through line by line of this budget and stripped out anything but the most essential,” Richins said.

Wednesday marked a progress update as Richins and Ambre took reporters on a tour of the muddy but busy construction site, now slated to be completed spring of 2022.

They gave an inside look at the challenges that crews have dealt with over the last two years since the project’s groundbreaking — and one of the first public looks inside the first building expected to be finished in November or mid-December: men’s maximum security.

Ambre opened a temporary wooden door to reveal the inside of a men’s max cell: a 6 12-foot-by-12-foot enclosure with concrete ceilings and walls, concrete bed, and a sink and toilet. It’s about 2 square feet bigger than the cells currently at the Draper facility (now more than 60 years old), per new corrections standards.

Ambre explained all the cell modules have been built off-site, in a factory in Ogden, before being trucked to the prison site where they’re placed and stacked “like Legos.”

Each cell module weighs about 68,000 pounds, Richins said, so crews have had to build planks for the cranes to sit on while lifting the cells — otherwise, the cranes will sink into the soil.

The module’s off-site construction, along with the underground utilities work, has been ongoing. “All of this was happening while it looked like not much happening,” Richins said.

But now that walls and cells are being put in place, the building will finish up pretty quickly, Ambre said.

When the entire corrections campus is completed, it will have 30 buildings, with facilities for a range of security levels, educational and rehabilitation programs, and blocks for both men and women, though there will be an outdoor barrier to prevent men and women from seeing each other — perhaps a first for prisons in all of the U.S. and even the world, Richins said.

“That we’re aware of, there’s not another complex like this in the world,” she said. “Although that means sometimes a little greater cost upfront, it means tremendous savings in operations and ongoing costs.”

The aim for the new prison is to be highly recidivism-focused, with much higher emphasis on treatment, rehabilitation, and educational programing.

Though the prison has fewer beds than originally planned, Richins and Ambre said officials are discussing adding capacity to other prison facilities, such as the Gunnison prison, and the Utah State Hospital to help with any capacity issues in the future.

“They’re looking now toward the needs of the inmates, more than just empty beds,” Richins said, noting that the average sentence served in the prison is between two to three years.

“So they’re going to be out among us,” she said. “If we don’t give them programs, that hurts us all.”