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Utah State Prison using short-term fixes to improve safety, but staffing still an issue

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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

After several recent attacks on corrections officers by inmates at the Utah State Prison, administrators with the Utah Department of Corrections say they have taken steps to improve safety at the facility for their employees.

"We've done an after-action review on every incident we've had here. But we stepped up after we had a couple that were in close proximity to each other and really did a robust process to fill out a safety plan," corrections executive director Brian Nielson said Friday.

Between Jan. 21 and Feb. 4, three corrections officers were attacked in separate incidents. One was in the Currant facility, which is the mental health unit, and two occurred in the Antelope housing unit, which is the maximum security area. All three officers were treated for injuries at local hospitals and released the same day. None of them, however, have returned to work yet, said Nielson, who noted they are still recovering.

On Friday, Nielson held a press conference at the Utah State Correctional Facility and offered a brief tour of part of the Antelope housing unit to update the public on what measures have been taken since the recent assaults.

Nielson said each attack was reviewed, problem areas were identified and plans developed on how to prevent assaults from happening again. He said each incident was caused by different factors and none of them could be blamed simply on a staffing shortage.

"It is a lot more than just needing more staff. The site that we're at requires more staff than the Draper site did. But that's not the end of the story," he said before going over some of the immediate changes that had been made. "The way we communicate with each other, whether it's on radio or shift briefings passed down. All of those things. Better communication was a big part of that. The way that we call for doors … we looked at every part of the operation that we're doing now."

Some of the immediate action that was taken to improve safety included now requiring two officers to work side-by-side in every pod in the Antelope facility at all times. Each pod consists of 16 cells. Short-term solutions included additional cameras and mirrors being installed in some blind spots, Nielson said.

"Short-term goals include improving facility infrastructure and security devices, increasing training, focusing on staff wellness, expanding programming, and focusing on gang interventions," the department stated. "Long-term goals include training and certifying staff in security audit practices. The department will also work to identify clear incident reduction tracking mechanisms."

Longer-term solutions will also include hiring national experts to look at what Utah is doing and making suggestions on how to improve.

Nielson noted that the old state prison in Draper opened in 1954 and administrators were still finding ways to improve up until it closed. The current facility west of Salt Lake City has been in operation for seven months. Although officers went through training before the facility opened, Nielson said unforeseen problems were sure to arise once the inmates were moved over.

"You learn lessons very quickly," he said.

Running the new prison is much different than how the Draper facility operated. In the new correctional facility, officers are required to use a direct supervision model, which puts officers and inmates in closer proximity to each other. The idea is to be proactive in preventing problems, in part by having officers develop a rapport with inmates.

But Nielson acknowledged that has been a challenge because of low staffing.

The direct supervision model requires much more staffing than the Draper facility did in order for it to work, which is an area the Corrections Department has been struggling with. A few weeks ago, administrators said 300 positions still needed be filled for the prison to be fully staffed. On Friday, Nielson said 135 positions needed to be filled just so the prison could move from its current status of officers working mandatory overtimes shifts, to voluntary overtime shifts.

Officers working at the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison are being called to Salt Lake City on a daily basis to help fill shifts, he said.