Private prisons coming to Utah?

This is the last in a series of blog posts exploring the inner workings of PRADA – Utah’s Prison Relocation and Development AuthorityCheck out the first, second and third posts, too.

Get ready, Utah! You’re about to get screwed.

Up until last week, I wasn’t quite sure where this prison relocation debacle was headed. But things just got a whole lot clearer. Private prisons could be coming to Utah.
private prisons imageAt PRADA’s August 29 meeting, Chair Lane Summerhays announced, essentially, that the “solution to this problem” will include 1) expanding the Gunnison facility and 2) contracting more (and higher-risk) state inmates to county jails.

He didn’t actually define the “problem,” but that’s okay. We’ve been quite clear on that for months: the current prison is cited, “problematically,” on some prime real estate.

Summerhays’ proclamation came after PRADA members bravely suffered two hours of pleas from religious volunteers to keep the prison either in its present location or somewhere near a major population center (so they can continue to minister to inmates, and community organizations can assist with inmate reentry), and advice from the state’s judiciary (who urged PRADA to examine cheaper and more effective alternatives to prison).

The most generous interpretation of Summerhays’ remarks is that overcrowding at Draper is the “problem.” After all, Corrections has been requesting money to expand Gunnison since 2008, but the recession scuttled construction plans.

But even without being asked, local judges offered a cheaper, better solution to that particular “problem”: stop putting people in prison who don’t need to be there. Among Judge Kevin Allen’s excellent (and data-driven) recommendations:

  • Expand drug and mental health courts, which offer treatment alternatives for between $4,000 and $6,000 per person – compared to nearly $30,000 annually for incarceration.

These solutions, however, do nothing to alleviate the actual “problem” being addressed by PRADA: high-value real estate that is currently NOT making money for friends, donors and colleagues of state powerbrokers.

At this point, I feel obligated to warn Utahns that they’re about to get screwed. And not just in the usual soaking-the-taxpayers kind of way.

Yes, we’ll probably get stuck with the bill for a prison relocation that nobody has been able to prove makes any fiscal sense. We’re going to get screwed in even worse ways that compromise our public safety and civil society, too.

  • Correctional decentralization – what PRADA is endorsing when it says it wants the county jails to take more state inmates – is NOT a good deal for Utah. Not in terms of state finances, and not in terms of public safety. Just ask California. Decentralization is much, much more complicated than PRADA understands.
  • Expansion of the Gunnison site limits the rehabilitative experience available to inmates when close to a large population center, rife with volunteers and supportive community organizations. Poorly- or non-rehabilitated felons are not good for public safety. 
  • PRADA apparently is still considering privatization to pay for the prison relocation. The outcome of such a strategy will be disastrous for inmates and for us. The failures of private prisons are well-documented nationally – and Utah’s own limited experience has not been good (see also: Promontory, Timpie Point). 

Right now, PRADA’s “solutions” all serve to monetize incarceration. The counties want to keep collecting payments for housing state convicts. Sanpete County, in particular, is pitching the Gunnison expansion as an “economic driver” for itself. Anytime a profit motive or economic incentive is attached to incarceration, the public should be concerned.

In that vein, PRADA’s next meeting (September 16) should prove particularly interesting: the “private prisons element” is presenting. I strongly encourage all concerned community members to attend.

In the meantime, sign up to receive meeting notices (click on “State,” “Governor’s Office,” and “Prison Relocation and Development Authority”), so you don’t miss any of the very limited portions of this fiasco that are visible to those who’ll be paying it—you.

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

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