Special Session Locks in Salt Lake Prison Location

Draper PrisonDuring Wednesday’s special session, lawmakers formally approved the plan to move the Utah State Prison to a site west of the Salt Lake City International Airport.

The 4,000-bed facility located at roughly 7200 West and I-80 is expected to cost $550 million to construct and was chosen by the Prison Relocation Commission due to a host of factors, including easy access to infrastructure, lower costs due to relative closeness to services such as courthouses and hospitals, and the possibility of spurring economic development in an area that has largely sat empty.

House sponsor of the resolution authorizing the move of the prison, Representative Brad Wilson (Republican – Kaysville), pushed his legislation through the House with little difficulty – but that shouldn’t suggest that the vote was a quick and painless affair.

Representative Fred Cox (Republican – West Valley City) attempted to amend the resolution early in the process in an attempt to keep the prison in Draper. Cox would point to the fact that the Prison Relocation Commission was not allowed to consider the location as part of their review, that the state has successfully expanded the Gunnison prison on-site, and that the Draper location could potentially save the state money.

Wilson quickly brushed away the amendment, noting that the Gunnison location was specifically designed for expansion whereas the Draper location grew far more organically. Wilson added that the Salt Lake site would provide the most economic benefit for the state as it would free up land in Draper and spur light industrial development on the capitol city’s west side.

But west side representatives rejected this logic. Democratic lawmaker Sandra Hollins (Salt Lake City), whose district covers the proposed location, viewed the move as far more than just a dollars and cents argument.

I-80/7200 West Location (click to enlarge)
I-80/7200 West Location (click to enlarge)

“The west side is being told, once again, that we have to shoulder the burden for the state while other communities can hide behind NIMBY [Not In My Back Yard].” Hollins passionately told the body.

“This is about social justice and class – it is about building up other communities on the backs of [the poor].” Hollins added, pointing out that the legislature has largely ignored other state facilities on the West Side such as the Fairgrounds and that the area already features a large number of halfway houses that directly benefit the criminal justice system.

Representative Angela Romero (Democrat – Salt Lake City) made the issue far more personal. “We [on the west side] feel disposable.”

The House would advance the resolution with bipartisan support on a vote of 62-12.

In the Senate, the story was similar.

Addressing concerns that the prison would act as an eyesore for people landing at the airport, Senator Lyle Hillyard (Republican – Logan) expressed that most people wouldn’t be able to distinguish the prison from the future light industrial landscape past the airport, but that thousands of people currently pass the state prison when traveling between Salt Lake and Provo.

Senator Aaron Osmond (Republican – South Jordan) told the body that, though he does not challenge the work that the committee has done, the state needs to do a better job “outlining what our strategy is on both a state and local level for utilization of land we are vacating in Draper. We need to explain what the economic benefit will actually be to the citizens of Utah.”

Osmond would ultimately vote against the measure, citing an overall lack of public buy-in on the project.

Senator Karen Mayne (Democrat – West Valley City), who sat on the Prison Relocation Commission, was eager to advance the resolution. “This is so important for Salt Lake City: no homes, zoned for business, it’s absolutely perfect. I think they need to look at the jobs, jobs, jobs… this is going to be built by your neighbor, your friend, your colleague… this is the best spot.”

The bill would head to the governor’s desk on a bipartisan vote: 21-7.

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, along with the Salt Lake City Council, were quick to protest. In a statement, the mayor and council said that they were “extremely disappointed by the Utah Legislature’s decision Wednesday to relocate the prison to Salt Lake City without adequately exploring or addressing the myriad and serious concerns and issues associated with this site.  This decision demonstrates a disregard for the residents of Salt Lake City, and will continue to overburden the west side of our community with a hugely disproportionate share of the state’s correctional facilities.”

Governor Herbert is expected to approve the decision once it hits his desk.

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