Utah needs prison reform, not prison redevelopment

prison reform imageWelcome back from summer vacation! The kids are in school, and the road trips are in the rearview mirror. So let me bring you up to speed on what you’ve missed while you’ve been away.

Here is a list of FAQs I’ve been hearing from people concerned about the crazy idea they heard in spring to move the prison:

Question #1 – Is moving the prison still “a thing?”

Oh yes, very much. The Prison Relocation and Development Authority (PRADA) just met on Monday, Sept. 16. News flash: lots of correctional officers, crime victims and inmates’ families really hate the idea of the prison and/or its prisoners being moved and/or scattered all over the state. Newsflash for those who couldn’t attend other PRADA meetings this summer: religious volunteers hate the idea, too, and judges have plenty of ideas about how Utah could REDUCE, rather than EXPAND, our incarcerated population.

Question #2 – How close is PRADA to a decision about whether to move the prison?

Who knows? They could already have their minds made up or they could be no closer to any actual action than PRADA 1.0, last year’s “exploratory prison relocation committee,” ever got (also likely, given PRADA’s messy, focus-less meetings).

Let’s be clear: PRADA doesn’t have the authority to actually move the prison. According to the legislation that created it, PRADA is tasked with 1) issuing a “Request for Proposals” (RFP) on some sort of “master development project” including a new prison and redevelopment of the current prison site, and 2) making recommendations to the governor and legislature as to whether any of the submitted proposals should be pursued.

Along the way, they are supposed to have a bunch of meetings – including one in the community where the prison is currently located, and others in communities that might potentially host a new prison.

Well, PRADA hasn’t issued the RFP, and they haven’t held any on-site meetings. So they don’t seem to be very close to a “decision” about what recommendations to make.

Question #3 – What has PRADA 2.0 accomplished?

By the beginning of October, PRADA members will have visited a few jails and prisons – both in and out of Utah. The board has hosted some speakers, with various motives, all trying to contribute somehow to this opaque, backwards process.

The board hired a real estate appraiser, for at least $65,000, to assess the value of the land on which the Draper prison currently sits.

PRADA has also issued a different RFP, for a “master consultant” who will help the board assess all the other RFPs that will eventually be submitted (presumable by private developers, private prison companies, and others who see a business opportunity here). The board is prepared to pay the consultant $300,000 to $500,000 – for about three months’ work.

During the Sept. 16 meeting, Rep. Brad Wilson presented a “draft” RFP for PRADA to tweak, then release, by early October. Though PRADA says it welcomes “programming submissions,” the draft was focused entirely on land, bricks and mortar. Nothing about programming, and definitely nothing about criminal justice or correctional reform – you know, so maybe eventually we can stop building more prisons.

Question #4 – What happens next?

Hard to say. PRADA is fighting with itself – some members want to rush forward with the RFP process, while others see the “need for speed” as dangerous, considering that we’re talking about the future of corrections in Utah (not to mention missing out on a huge opportunity to talk about wholesale criminal justice and corrections reform).

What should happen next is this: Utahns coming back from summer vacation need to tune back in to the PRADA process. The overwhelming feeling among regular, everyday Utahns – from those presenting to the PRADA board, to those commenting online in response to news stories – seems to be that they have little interest in this endeavor, and are offended that the entire process seems to be driven by economic interests, not by the public interest.

It’s time to start paying attention again, and it’s time to start getting worried. Hide your wallets, get your legislator on speed dial, and get ready for the next six months.

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