Prison Relocation: PRADA Ignoring the Past

This is the second in a series of blog posts exploring the inner workings of PRADA – Utah’s Prison Relocation and Development Authority.
PRADA imageMost of the public seems to be under the impression that PRADA is “looking into whether to move the prison.” You know, finding out, on the public’s behalf:

  • whether the project would be economically feasible and responsible to undertake with tax payer money;
  • whether it’s necessary to move the prison based on current facilities and recent capital investment in those facilities; and
  • whether it’s worth the cost and inconvenience to prison staff, families of inmates, attorneys, advocates and volunteers.

But that’s not what’s happening.

You might recall that this is what happened in 2005, when the State of Utah commissioned a feasibility study from Wikstrom Economic & Planning Consultants.

That study, though not without its critics, concluded that Utah could not fully recover the cost of relocating the prison through land sales and subsequent taxes. In fact, it predicted, Utah taxpayers would be left in the hole for $372 million.

So, it seems like a no-brainer that PRADA 2.0’s first step would be initiating Wikstrom 2.0. But a quick reading of Senate Bill 72 indicates PRADA’s actual “fact-finding” mission:

“This bill…establishes a process for the authority to issue a request for proposals for a new prison development project, current prison land development project, or master development project, receive and evaluate proposals, and make a recommendation to the Legislature and governor.”

So…PRADA is going to decide whether the prison could (not should) be moved, by asking private contractors if it’s a good idea. If the term “putting the cart before the horse” just popped into your head, you’re not alone.

The Wikstrom study is a big piece of the past that PRADA 2.0 is not discussing. There’s no movement toward conducting a similar comprehensive investigation. All we’ve heard, as yet, are passionate assertions that “real estate and loan costs make the project attractive now.”

These assertions are not substantiated with actual financial projections – at least, none that the public has seen. Just some self-serving assurances from private developers, to PRADA 1.0, that “the state has nothing to lose by putting out an RFP.”

There has been some helpful information about the past interjected into the process. The Department of Corrections gave PRADA a comprehensive presentation about its current facilities and programs, plus an overview of the challenges posed by a prison relocation (i.e. figuring out how to get 1,400 volunteers to drive into the middle of nowhere to provide free religious and educational programming).

DOC’s presentation showed that the prison is not, uniformly, 60+ years old. Sure, it opened in 1951, but in just the past 20 years, Utah taxpayers have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in facilities upgrades.

The Olympus wing, which houses prisoners with mental health issues, opened in 1993. Two units in the Uintah wing are just 15 years old, and the Lone Peak geriatric facility is even newer.

These are not insignificant capital investments. Does PRADA’s unquestioning acceptance of the “low construction costs + good loan rates” argument take into account all the taxpayer dollars that we’ll lose by demolishing those facilities?

Finally, the DOC presentation draws attention to something that has not happened in the past. DOC has not been begging the Governor and Legislature to move the prison out of Draper. DOC has not continually solicited support for a fancy new super prison – in Draper or elsewhere.

From my conversations with DOC folks, I gather that what DOC really wants is support for innovative approaches to rehabilitation, and better compensation for Correctional Officers (the high turnover rate at Draper is also costing taxpayers unnecessarily).

To me, this indicates that PRADA is not just “putting the cart before the horse.” It’s putting the demands of real estate developers (and Point of the Mountain homeowners) before the needs and recommendations of Utah’s correctional experts and professionals.

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

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