Guest OpEd: Senator Jenkins’ Prison BoonDoggle

By: June Taylor

When it comes to Real Estate deals, we have a very skilled bunch of legislators.  The developer’s blue ribbon for this Legislative Session goes to Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City , for SB72S4 which would use the Prison Redevelopment and Development Authority (PRADA), set up by the Legislature last year, to invite and choose proposals to tear down the existing prison in Draper and build a new one someplace else on less desirable real estate.  A new stealth addition to the bill would allow private prison companies to operate the new prison.   If Utah follows the pattern of other states which have adopted the privatization model, then we can expect incarceration rates to remain high and probably increase.  It costs $35,000 to $65,000 per prisoner per year to keep an inmate at the Draper prison.  Utah’s indeterminate sentencing and indeterminate parole allows wide latitude for manipulating the inmate population to keep a full house at Draper. Anyone versed in business models can see that it is to the advantage of a private prison operator to keep occupancy rates up.  This incentive is entirely at odds with the financial interests of state taxpayers.

Keep in mind that most inmates eventually are released.  Many are released into a parole system that actually drives a recidivism cycle, by using a combination of extended parole times and harsh regulations for parole violation.  There are no scientific data that show that such a parole system provides any social benefit beyond job security for those who work in the parole and prison system.  There is ample data showing the damage done to society, families and individuals by using prisons to incarcerate the mentally ill and the addicted, instead of sending them to effective treatment programs, at a fraction of the cost.

So why would our famously frugal Legislator propose such a prison boondoggle?  If PRADA cannot cover the costs of tearing down and “developing” the Draper prison site, which sits on 625 acres of prime real estate, then the excess costs can be passed on to taxpayers, under current Utah law and SB72S4.  After taxpayers pay for the demolition and “development” to make this juicy addition to the public trough, the 40% of our Legislators who are developers and their cronies will have a banquet at taxpayer expense.  There are clear conflicts of interest between Senators and Representatives who are in the business of real estate development, but these go unchallenged. The [Salt Lake] Tribune noted this on March 5: “Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, was among the 19 senators who voted for the bill. Niederhauser acknowledged last week his real estate development business owns a housing project four miles from the current prison but denied any conflict of interest or potential benefit.”

SB72S4 is bad fiscal policy and bad prison policy.  It will burden our state with incentives to keep incarceration rates high, diverting money from attacking the major problems leading to imprisonment: mental illness and addiction.  After all, if the issue is jobs to be created, spending money on mental health facilities and treatment programs for addicts – at a fraction of the cost of incarceration -would produce not only jobs in these facilities and programs, but also convert the majority of potential inmates into productive members of communities. It is time to call our Legislators to account for their self-interested pursuit of gain for their businesses, at continuing expense to Utah taxpayers and communities.


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