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Inside the new Utah State Prison: The now $1 billion project is nearly complete

Dallas Tucker, Ezarc Building Solutions laborer, works in the receiving and orientation building at the new Utah State Prison in Salt Lake City.
Dallas Tucker, Ezarc Building Solutions laborer, works in the receiving and orientation building at the new Utah State Prison in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

It’s been over four years since the new Utah State Prison’s groundbreaking.

Four years since state dignitaries — after years of controversy and public outrage over where it would eventually be built — sank gold-painted shovels into the ground of a remote, mosquito-riddled area in Salt Lake City’s west side, celebrating the beginnings of a new era of how Utah would treat its incarcerated.

That groundbreaking ceremony gave way to what would become one of the largest construction projects in Utah’s history — second to its (not so nearby) neighbor, about 9 miles to its east: the over $4 billion new Salt Lake City International Airport.

It’s also been coined one of the largest detention projects in the nation. The construction of a 1.3 million-square-foot, 170-acre expanse of correctional facilities of all security types, all the way up to maximum security. All from scratch, infrastructure included.

Utah’s prison was at one point the largest and most expensive detention project in the nation, but since its groundbreaking other larger projects have been set into motion, including New York City’s plans to spend nearly $9 billion to build a new jail system to replace the Rikers Island complex.

As for the price tag of the new Utah State Prison? Cost escalation has now brought it to about $1 billion.

That’s according to Jim Russell, director of Utah’s Division of Facilities Construction and Management, who noted the final cost of the new prison could come in “just a little bit under or a little bit over” $1 billion depending on final procurement processes.

And construction? It’s almost done.

“You’ll be absolutely shocked when you go out there,” Russell told the Deseret News ahead of a tour of the construction site last week.

The men’s general population building is pictured at the new Utah State Prison in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021.
The men’s general population building is pictured at the new Utah State Prison in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Despite its massive scope, most Utahns likely don’t know the new Utah State Prison is nearing completion. It’s set so far north of I-80, its sprawling footprint is barely visible to drivers.

But the closer they get, visitors quickly realize the new Utah State Prison is no longer a concept that was at the center of a painful siting process and years of debate. Nor is it just a muddy construction site. It’s reality.

It’s a prison now.

All of the buildings are practically finished. The cells are all but inmate-ready. Inside each building — from the men’s and women’s general population facilities to the mental health and medical unit to maximum security areas — crews were working on finishing touches. Paint, trim, caulk.

Outside, workers were carefully placing the final stretches of about 10 miles of razor wire at the top of the secure perimeter’s chain-link fence. Some recreation yards even already have sod. In the works are basketball courts, volleyball courts and a mini running track.

“We’re about 86% complete,” said Michael Ambre, assistant director of Utah’s Division of Facilities Construction and Management. “All of the major structures are up.”

Michael Ambre, assistant director of the state Division of Facilities Construction and Management, shows the view into a maximum security men’s unit from a control room in the new Utah State Prison in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. A guard can lock or unlock doors from the control room.
Michael Ambre, assistant director of the state Division of Facilities Construction and Management, shows the view into a maximum security men’s unit from a control room in the new Utah State Prison in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. A guard can lock or unlock doors from the control room.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

When will the new Utah State Prison open?

Building construction is currently slated to be finished by the end of February, Ambre said, though he notes construction deadlines can change depending on if they run into any issues.

Inmates, however, aren’t scheduled to move in until June, leaving several months to allow for testing and refinement of the complex electronic security system that controls everything within the prison — the opening, closing and locking of every single cell door, for example.

Plus, the Department of Corrections will need to train all of its staff on how to operate the new facilities, a process that Ambre says is already ongoing.

“The plan is to have everything commissioned and all of the training completed by the first of June so the transition can happen sometime in the month of June,” Russell said.

For Ambre, the completion of the new Utah State Prison can’t come soon enough — after years of grappling with hurdle after hurdle.

“It wasn’t stressful, huh, Mike?” Russell said sarcastically to Ambre, standing in one of the men’s dorm-style day rooms — an area reserved for the more well-behaved male inmates.

Russell said the past four years have probably felt more like 10 for Ambre, who’s been more deeply involved in the project day to day.

“I didn’t have any gray hair before I started this project,” joked Ambre, who now has traces of gray in his facial hair.

Max Beazer, American Fence installer, puts up razor wire around the new Utah State Prison in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021.
Max Beazer, American Fence installer, puts up razor wire around the new Utah State Prison in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

What’s taken so long and why has it cost so much?

The site itself was challenging enough. Not only did crews 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.

On top of that, add in budget woes.

The once $650 million price tag has continued to climb with escalating costs over the past several years in the booming construction market. Russell and Ambre pointed to President Donald Trump’s tariffs on China, and the COVID-19 pandemic, which has compounded costs even further with labor shortages and supply chain issues — all things they said have driven the price of the project up over the years.

“We’ve had now 42% escalation in (construction costs) from 2015 when it was first funded until now,” Russell said. “All in all, I think we’ve done a fantastic job with where we’re at. The budget could have been much much more. ... If you (factor) in the escalation and everything on the project, it should have been about $1.3 billion.”

Plus, Russell notes that original price tag did not factor in the cost of locating the prison in a remote, wetland area of west Salt Lake City or the cost of the 13 miles of power lines, sewer lines, water lines and 7 miles of roads needed to develop the area.

Facing those rising costs, project managers pushed pause on construction for several months to redesign the facilities to save money.

In 2019, Marilee Richins, deputy director of the state Department of Administrative Services, credited Ambre and his team for finding more than $110 million in cost savings. She said the Legislature’s original “lowball” budget number for the new prison “really forced us to stretch,” and she credited state officials for that “strategy” to create cost efficiencies.

But that redesign cut the prison’s previously planned bed count of 4,000 to 3,600.

Capacity is a concern — but more long term than short term. The current prison in Draper houses 2,500 inmates, “so we will not be at full capacity” when the new prison opens, Ambre said.

But as Utah’s population continues to boom, its incarcerated population inevitably will too. That begs the question: What happens when Utah’s brand new prison fills up?

“There have been several options for when the facility overflows,” Ambre said. There’s room on the new prison’s site for expansion of facilities, but that would cost more money. Or the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison could expand. That’s all yet to be determined.

Before deciding next steps, state officials will likely need to take a “deeper dive” and analyze what should be done about the need for particular inmates, Ambre said. For example, maybe a mental health facility “would make more sense off-site.”

Preceding all of these hurdles — before the new prison’s construction began — was the yearslong challenge of grappling with public opinion around moving the Utah State Prison from its current home in Draper to a Salt Lake City location.

“The general public doesn’t like to see their tax dollars going to build, you know, a necessary evil,” Ambre said.

The endeavor was costly and the siting process grueling. But Utah lawmakers saw it through to unlock prime real estate at the Point of the Mountain for development, expecting a great return of economic investment.

Supporters also encouraged building a whole new prison as the Draper prison’s aging facilities continued to deteriorate. They saw an opportunity to build a new facility with a more “humane” and safe focus — one built to rehabilitate inmates, not warehouse them.

Michael Ambre, assistant director of the state Division of Facilities Construction and Management, shows a munition port where tear gas can be administered in the event of a riot at the new Utah State Prison in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021.
Michael Ambre, assistant director of the state Division of Facilities Construction and Management, shows a munition port where tear gas can be administered in the event of a riot at the new Utah State Prison in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

What’s it like inside?

Green means secure. Red means not secure.

Outside every single cell door, a little indicator with a green or red light will tell corrections officers whether the cell is locked or unlocked. And every single cell door is connected to an electronic control system, which guards will be able to use to open, close and lock cells remotely.

Control. Obviously that’s an important element for a prison to be safe and secure for both inmates and corrections officers, and it was a key focus for the design of the new prison. But to determine which areas of the prison would need more control, the prison’s designers based the structure of the entire facility on one main thing: behavior.

“It has everything to do with behavior in this facility,” Ambre said. “It has nothing to do with your sentence.”

Better-behaved inmates will be placed in dorm-style, shared living areas. Poorly-behaved inmates will be isolated in single-bed cells, with limited opportunities for interaction with other inmates or guards, Ambre explained during a tour of the new prison’s facilities.

The campus itself is made up of over a dozen different buildings designed based on varying levels of security, from medical and mental health, to general population, to maximum security. There are also buildings for administrative work, classrooms and gymnasiums, chapels, culinary, receiving and orientation where inmates meet with caseworkers, visitation, vocational programs, screening, warehouses to receive supplies, and so on.

Uniquely, the prison will have facilities for both men and women within its footprint, though women’s facilities are segregated from the men’s by a secure outdoor perimeter. But the idea for both the men’s and women’s facilities are the same: Better behaved inmates are placed in general population units and inmates who have violent histories get placed in maximum security units.

Inside each building, it’s a very sterile environment that looks extremely similar no matter where you go. Concrete walls and floors. Glass windows. Uniform cell doors.

But a color-coding system helps differentiate areas and their varying levels of behavior and security.

Both men’s and women’s max facilities are painted a blue-gray color. The medical and mental health unit — which is fitted with medical beds and areas for case management and therapy — is a pinkish-salmon color. General population units are a light tan.

There’s also a geriatric unit for elderly inmates. For those who have histories of good behavior, they’ll live in a dorm-style area with access to a large, open area fitted with TVs and tables with games like checkers printed on their surfaces.

Each unit features a “day room,” or an area where inmates can socialize outside of their cells, which line the walls. For areas with better-behaved inmates, a guard will supervise the area using “direct supervision,” or a model in which corrections staff are stationed at a desk in the middle of the room.

For units with higher levels of security, corrections staff monitor inmates from a control room overseeing the units from behind glass panes. There, correction officers can use an intercom system to communicate with inmates and control which cells are open or closed.

The maximum security unit is designed to allow inmates to move from their cells to recreation enclosures (cage-like areas in the recreation yard meant to give inmates time outside) and to the shower without guards needing to shackle and transport them personally to and from their cells. All corrections staff will need to do is open or close cell doors individually, and a sectioned-off area funnels the inmate to where they need to go.

“(Corrections officers) don’t even need to touch them,” Ambre said. “It’s actually safer, and the inmate will like it more just because of the fact they don’t have to be (shackled).”

A dorm room is pictured in the men’s general population building at the new Utah State Prison in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021.
A dorm room is pictured in the men’s general population building at the new Utah State Prison in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

A ‘humane’ focus

Throughout all of the facilities, the prison’s designers placed a big focus on another key element: natural light.

Contrast that with the Draper prison’s bleak, steel grey insides, lit with harsh fluorescent lights.

“Natural light is key,” Ambre said, explaining the prison’s design included a focus on ensuring sunlight could reach day rooms and other inmate spaces, mostly with mental health in mind for both inmates and staff.

The new prison was designed with a main goal to create a facility that treats its inmates and gives them a shot at a new life, not traps them in a vicious cycle of recidivism.

For Russell, seeing the new prison become a reality hits home personally.

Russell said he was only 5 years old when his father got into trouble with drugs and alcohol, left his family and spiraled into a “total train wreck.”

Russell said his dad landed in the Utah State Prison, and he “could never get out.”

“He couldn’t function outside,” Russell said. “He (went) in and out of that and the county jail for the next 35 to 40 years until he died.”

Russell said maybe things could have played out differently for his dad had he been able to live in a better environment with facilities and programs based on rehabilitation.

“Maybe it could have changed his life,” Russell said. “Just being warehoused in a dark hole, how does that help anybody?”

Russell said as he’s watched the design of the new prison take shape, he realized there’s a balancing act between ensuring the prison is a place of punishment, but also a place with the right environment for inmates to turn their lives around while serving their sentences.

“You don’t want to make it so nice that they never want out, but then you also need to provide a place where they can actually change their behavior,” Russell said. “I think (Ambre) and his team have done a great job getting the right mix.”

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