Utah lawmakers OK site near Salt Lake City airport for new state prison

Industrials Associated Press

Utah lawmakers on Wednesday voted to build a new state prison near Salt Lake City's airport.

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The GOP-dominated state House and Senate met in a special legislative session to approve the measure, which residents, local officials and many Democratic lawmakers opposed.

The House voted 62-12 Wednesday evening to approve the measure, with five Republicans joining seven Democrats in opposition. A short while later, Utah's Senate voted 21-7 in favor, sending it to Gov. Gary Herbert's desk for approval.

A state commission chose the site earlier this month after Utah officials debated and studied the issue for years.

Proponents of the move say the lot 3 miles west of Salt Lake City International Airport will allow Utah to build a state-of-the-art facility and tear down a crowded, aging prison in the Salt Lake City suburb of Draper, freeing up that land for business development.

Salt Lake City opposes the move, and city officials are threatening a lawsuit to block the prison.

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The resolution lawmakers approved Wednesday gives Utah the go-ahead to purchase the land, which is expected to cost about $30 million, and move forward with construction.

Consultants working for the Prison Relocation Commission estimated that making the Salt Lake City land suitable for a facility that can house about 4,500 inmates would cost about $150 million.

Rep. Fred Cox, R-West Valley City, unsuccessfully tried to co-opt the proposal and instead get lawmakers to vote on a competing resolution that calls for the state to look at rebuilding the 60-year-old prison in Draper.

He argued it costs less to keep the prison where it is, and the long-term cost of operating a prison in Draper is comparable to the cost savings lawmakers say they'll get in Salt Lake City.

Kaysville Republican Rep. Brad Wilson, co-chair of the prison commission, disputed Cox's numbers and argued that by redeveloping the land in relatively affluent Draper, the state can afford the $550 million cost of building a state-of-the-art prison with the space to treat and rehabilitate inmates.

Several Democratic lawmakers representing Salt Lake City spoke against the move, saying it will hamper economic development there.

Democratic Rep. Sandra Hollins represents the west Salt Lake City district where the prison would go and said the decision is based on economic class, not restorative criminal justice.

"It's about keeping some communities pristine while placing services that you do not want on another side on one side of town or on one community," Hollins said.

In Hollins' district, 21 percent of households receive food stamps or welfare, according to state reports analyzing legislative districts. The prison currently sits in the district of GOP House Speaker Greg Hughes. That district has only 3 percent of households receiving food stamps or welfare.

Redeveloping the Draper site for business use could generate from $557 million to $2.7 billion in economic activity, according to estimates released by lawmakers.

If the prison isn't moved, it will cost Utah $578 million over 20 years to improve and maintain the current site, according to the commission.

In addition to the Salt lake City site, the commission discussed moving the prison to locations in Grantsville, Eagle Mountain and Fairfield, as local officials and residents lined up to oppose the project they fear will hurt property values and choke development.

Consultants estimated that a Salt Lake City prison would cost $423 million to operate over 50 years. The three other sites would run $670 million or more than $700 million over 50 years.