Gov. Spencer Cox cut a ceremonial blue ribbon Wednesday to mark the opening of Utah’s new state prison.
Then, about an hour later, in an unscripted move that may have made a bigger symbolic impact, the governor removed a “dead end” sign on the road that leads to the prison entrance and wrote the words “to new beginnings.” The move came after Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson semi-jokingly challenged Cox to get a sawzall and cut the sign down.
“The whole purpose of investing a billion dollars up here was to help ensure that this facility is not a dead end for the 95% that come out here, that leave here. It’s in our best interest that this prison and this facility is not a dead end, that it’s actually a place they can hit the reset button and leave here better than they came,” Wilson said to the crowd gathered for Wednesday’s ceremony. His comments were greeted with a round of applause.
Nearly five years after the ceremonial groundbreaking ceremony for the new Utah State Correctional Facility was held, Cox on Wednesday joined other state leaders, lawmakers and law enforcement personnel for a ribbon-cutting ceremony marking the opening of the new correctional facility.
Utah Department of Corrections executive director Brian Nielson called it a “historic day.”
“It’s kinda surreal. I can’t really believe we are here. It’s been a long journey to get here,” added Jim Russell, director of the Utah Division of Facilities and Construction Management.
The new prison includes 35 buildings on 200 acres of land, or approximately 1.35 million square feet of operational space. Cox said it has been the largest construction project in state history. The result is a correctional facility “structured like a small city,” he said.
But the project, which started over six years ago when a committee explored several different potential sites of where to build the new facility, as well as whether to keep it in Draper, has been met with several delays.
“This project had no shortage of major obstacles. As soon as we started to undertake the construction, we were in direct competition with an airport project just over the way. The construction costs were going crazy and the resources — human resources, materials — were really drying up,” Russell noted.
Among the many obstacles the delayed prison project faced, Russell said, were a 47% increase in cost from when they started, an earthquake that tilted several buildings under construction, corrosive soil and COVID-19. The design for the correctional facility was modified several times from its original plan over the years. At its peak, approximately 1,500 people a day worked on constructing the new prison.
And as Russell noted, “The cost of this project has been a story for quite some time.”
The final price tag for the new facility is expected to be more than $1 billion, but Russell and Cox said that because of the efforts of construction crews and state planners, “millions and millions” were saved.
Cox said just as important as the new correctional facility, is the 7 miles of roads and utility infrastructure that was built around the prison, which now opens the door for additional development on Salt Lake City’s northwest side.
“It’s not just the prison, it’s what gets to happen now around the prison. And it’s not just what happens here, it’s what happens where the current prison sits (in Draper),” he said.
In addition to modern security features, the new prison, which will hold approximately 3,600 inmates, with room to expand if needed, is a vast improvement from the “dungeon” atmosphere of the current correctional facility in Draper.
There will be a significant increase in the amount of natural light each building will receive, something that is expected to improve the mental health of both inmates and correctional officers alike. Cox called law enforcers some of the most important employees in the state and said they deserve to have better working conditions.
But maybe most importantly, many who spoke Wednesday touted the idea that the more modern facility will offer inmates more services and opportunities to turn their lives around so they can become contributing members of society again.
“We need to get back to being a country of building, a country that dreams big and inspires others to dream big, as well,” Cox said.
“We’re dreaming big for those who are at the edges of society — those who have failed in their obligations to family, to community, to society at large – because we know that someday most of them, almost all of them, will be back with us living in our communities. Our neighbors. And our hope is when they return to our neighborhoods that they will have a new sense of community, that they will have the tools necessary to rebuild their lives. And that doesn’t happen if you just put people in a box. If you just do that, when they live they’ll have all the same problems and no more solutions and probably be worse off now.”
Wilson said the inadequacies of the current prison are hampering those efforts and he believes the new facility “is going to be the absolute finest of its kind anywhere in the country.”
It was during Wilson’s comments at the ceremony that he noted the new road off of the 7200 West exit from I-80 that goes north until it reaches a “dead end” sign near the prison main entrance, and he challenged Cox to take the sign down.
About an hour later, Cox removed the dead end sign from the side of the road.
For security purposes, Utah Department of Corrections declined to say when the first inmates will be transferred from the Point of the Mountain to the new facility but noted that the entire prison population was expected to be moved by the end of the summer.