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‘Tear down this prison': Demolition begins on old Utah State Prison in Draper

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A guard tower begins to fall at the old state prison in Draper on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Demolition of the old Utah State Prison began Tuesday with the ceremonial tearing down of a decades-old guard tower.

The demolition is a culmination of years of work, said former Utah Gov. Gary Herbert in a speech before the demolition, with that work resulting in a new state-of-the-art corrections facility in Salt Lake City and what will become a 600-acre development, called The Point, located at the old prison site.

"This is a great day for us — one of many great days," said Herbert, who worked to make the new prison a reality before leaving office in 2021.

"This truly is a win-win-win day for us," he said.

Herbert was joined by Draper Mayor Troy Walker and Alan Matheson, executive director of the Point of the Mountain State Land Authority, both of whom praised the collaboration involved to make the new prison happen and expressed optimism about the project's expected economic and social benefits.

"This is a significant day in Utah's history as we symbolically add another star to the constellation of must-see destinations in this state," Matheson said.

"Today is kind of a hinge point, as we transition from the Draper state prison to The Point. From aging and outdated infrastructure to a brand new, exciting, future-focused community. It's a move from razor wire, surveillance, restrictions, to a place that will be welcoming, open and accessible."

Walker acknowledged that he was in the rare position of overseeing a prison demolition as a mayor, and evoked then-President Ronald Reagan's 1987 speech urging the demolition of the Berlin Wall.

"If you seek a place of economic freedom, if you seek a place of unprecedented opportunity, if you seek an infusion into Utah's economy, if you seek a new place for thousands of Utahns to work and live, then Mr. Matheson, tear down this prison," he said.

The demolition began shortly thereafter, although the guard tower refused to give way at first. More than 100 people waited in the cold, including several state lawmakers, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, and several parents who brought their young kids to witness the spectacle.

At one point, a seemingly restless state Sen. Dan McCay began throwing snowballs at the still-standing guard tower from behind the safety line. He struck the base of the tower on his second attempt.

After more than an hour and several unsuccessful attempts with a wrecking ball and excavator, the tower finally crashed to the ground amid cheers and shouts of "Hallelujah!" from the crowd, which had dwindled to a few dozen.

A worker uses a wrecking ball on a corner of a guard tower as they work to topple it over at the old state prison in Draper on Tuesday.

A worker uses a wrecking ball on a corner of a guard tower as they work to topple it over at the old state prison in Draper on Tuesday.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Although demolition is expected to be complete midway through 2023, Matheson said that the longer-than-expected demolition of the guard tower is an example that things don't always go according to plan.

"There are always surprises," he said. "But we expect that it will be finished in the middle part of next year. Shortly after that, we'll start putting the infrastructure in and we hope that we'll see buildings ready to be occupied no later than 2027. As a community, we can all watch it come together."

Matheson said The Point will be a "mixed-use community," where "people can live, work, play, recreate and learn all in one area." He said the community will be built with a pedestrian focus, with transit options, trails and open space.

Walker emphasized the plans for expanding Draper's trails as part of a "river to range" effort to extend walkable pathways from the Jordan River to the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains.

"I think this underscores what's unique about Utah," he said. "That you can get local governments, county governments and state governments working together. ... It really gives some opportunities that wouldn't exist, and it took all of the players to see the vision."

He praised the Utah Legislature for being willing to fund the new state prison, and said he expects the economic impact of the "generational" development to "fill that back in tenfold."

Herbert agreed that the initiative represents a unique collaboration and was possible only because of "the Utah way." Although he has been out of office for nearly two years, he said he continues to be proud of his time as governor and grateful to see the state continue to build on the work that he did, just as he built on the work of his predecessors.

"Utah has done extremely well because of the great people here," Herbert said. "It's one thing to be a good coach, another thing if you've got good players. We've got really good players in Utah, which gives us a leg up."

Most of the old prison will be torn down over the coming months, but the land authority has chosen to keep intact the prison chapel and Johnson Bar locking system — a mechanical locking system that allowed guards to open individual cell doors remotely by pulling a lever at a control panel. The Johnson Bar system is on display in only one other place on earth — Alcatraz Island.

The chapel, which was built by inmates in 1961, will remain as part of the site's future as a "symbol of hope," according to a press release by the land authority.

"We recognize our solemn responsibility as stewards of the public's investment to respect the site's past while simultaneously planning for its future," said state Rep. Lowry Snow, who is the co-chair of the land authority. "This momentous occasion signals a new chapter in our work to reflect Utahns' vision and values at The Point."

"It's a little emotional seeing that change," said Deputy Warden Brian Kenney, who has worked at the prison for 23 years. "But at the same time, it's progress. We're seeing us move something for Draper, for the state of Utah, and to see this progress forward."

Kenney said the new state prison will provide more education, recreation and services to incarcerated people. Unlike the old prison, the new facility was designed to keep other services close at hand to the housing for the prisoners.

"The old prison was built in the '50s," Kenney said. "When construction first started, basically prisons were just a place where the offenders were held. (With) the new site, we had education, reform and rehabilitation in mind as the prison was built. So that's a vast difference from this prison to the new prison, and shows how we're progressing forward to help the offender change their life and be a better part of the community as they come out into society."

Nearly 2,500 inmates were transported from Draper to the new $1 billion Utah State Correctional Facility in July.

As for The Point, a development framework was approved by the land authority in 2021, and details about the first phase of redevelopment are expected to be made public in the next few weeks.