Prison relocation “discussion” is happening in a vacuum

This is the first in a series of blog posts exploring the inner workings of PRADA – Utah’s Prison Relocation and Development Authority.

The media spotlight is squarely planted on the John Swallow debacle, so you might not know that there’s another excellent dog-and-pony show going on at the Capitol this summer.

The Legislature-mandated and Governor-appointed Prison Relocation And Development Authority has been meeting regularly since June, as per Senator Scott Jenkin’s SB 72.

Adorably, the committee calls itself PRADA – though unlike the fashion label, there is nothing contemporary or cutting-edge about it. In fact, they call it “PRADA 2.0,” the slightly more public version of PRADA 1.0, which last year, through a series of closed meetings, came to the conclusion that now is the time to tear down the current Utah State Prison and relocate it somewhere less rich with real estate promise.

utah prisonIf you tuned out of the prison relocation discussion back in March, don’t worry…you haven’t missed much. The best overview of what’s going on is still this SL Tribune article by Brooke Adams. And the best description is still that of Steve Erickson, as quoted in Ms. Adam’s article: “Bass-ackwards.”

As a graduate student in the University of Utah’s Public Administration program, I began following PRADA’s work as research for an eventual major research paper. After observing a couple of PRADA meetings, I have come to some conclusions.

First, there seems to be little understanding or agreement among PRADA members, despite their (ostensibly) good intentions, as to what they are supposed to be doing at these public meetings. While representatives of various agencies and departments parade through the agenda at the official meetings, PRADA subcommittees meet at other times to discuss the real details: who should appraise the real estate, what the state’s RFP should ask for, and God knows what else.

Second, the only thing that can’t be talked about at PRADA meetings is the real reason there is a PRADA in the first place. Despite many presentations from various interested parties – ranging from the surprisingly self-aware and visionary (Department of Corrections) to the ridiculously self-serving and misleading (Utah Association of Counties) – the fact remains that this entire process has been initiated by a small group of people looking to make a big bundle of money from the redevelopment of the land on which the prison currently sits. SB 72 sponsor Senator Jenkins has publicly stated as much.

Third, this entire “process” is happening in a vacuum. A very, very expensive vacuum. By which I mean,

  • PRADA is ignoring the past – specifically: a professionally-conducted study that showed a prison relocation as financially unfeasible; the many recent facility upgrades to the current prison; and the legislature’s own refusal to sufficiently support the Department of Correction’s admirable efforts to invest in effective rehabilitative programming.
  • PRADA is ignoring the present – specifically: the bigger picture of criminal justice in Utah; the increasingly urgent (and fully bipartisan) national conversation about the need for wholesale criminal justice reform; and on-going municipal and state policies in Utah that continue to feed over-incarceration and recidivism.
  • PRADA is ignoring the future – specifically: a future in which we have less need for prison facilities, not more. PRADA is ignoring, in a deeply disappointing and dangerous way, a golden opportunity to envision a modern and constitutional criminal justice system that better protects public safety, honors scientific research on best practices, preserves civil liberties and celebrates human dignity.

The next PRADA meeting is Thursday, August 29. Leading up to that meeting, I will be expanding on each of these elements. After August 29, I will be blogging regularly on the “progress” of the prison relocation discussion. I welcome your attention, insights and contributions during that time – and I invite you to attend the PRADA meetings with me.

Anna Brower is pursuing an MPA at the University of Utah. 

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