By Aaron Butler
SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers are waiting for the recommendation of the Prison Relocation and Development Authority. Folks are eager to speed along the deliberations and send the issue right to the legislative floor — this session, if at all possible.
The penitentiary has been sitting on 700 acres at the Point of the Mountain since 1951. Today, it’s surrounded by booming businesses and thriving suburbs that are itching to keep growing. But, unfortunately, overcrowding has given the prison that same itch.
MGT of America, a consulting firm specializing in correctional facilities, has been hired by the state to help guide the decision-making process. Brad Sassatelli, MGT project manager, opened a public meeting Tuesday, Jan. 16, offering any resident the chance to voice their opinions about a potential prison move. And many did.
Several expressed concern that moving the prison too far away from the Wasatch Front could be detrimental to the prison’s army of volunteers, especially if they are forced to travel long distances. Deborah Reithmuller, founder of the Utah Prison Support group and wife of a current inmate, said volunteers are the backbone of the Utah Department of Corrections.
“Without these volunteers, the cost of incarceration would skyrocket,” she said. “The offenders would once again become nothing more than a barcode in a warehouse.”
But for many prisoners, the real fear would be getting moved far away from family and friends that they lean on during their rehabilitations.
“The money could be better spent trying to keep these prisoners with their families, so that these children … have some semblance of normal life with a father,”” said Tanja Schaffer, also wife of a Utah prisoner, She said her daughter is waiting to get married until her dad can be there, conveying that the sentencing of prisoners is “extremely excessive.”
Schaffer was not the only one calling for sentencing reform. Several residents did, along with reform of the prison system altogether.
“Concrete and steel prisons were technology along about the Middle Ages,” said Glen Collett, another concerned resident. “I ask you to look at high technology for prisons today.” Collett even suggested that prisons might someday be empty because of “electronic incarceration.”
Many stressed the fact that adequate time must be taken to fully consider the appropriate future of the criminal justice system and to decide if that future includes more concrete and chain-link or more ankle bracelets and smart phone apps.
Aside from just a handful of prisoners that are serving life sentences, “they’re all coming back, and they will affect your life in a dramatic way,” said Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, a member of the prison relocation authority. “This is the first time we’ve really had people step up and listen and be willing to talk about just shaking the tree. I don’t want status quo. If we don’t do something, nothing will change.”
“I took a copious amount of notes,” Sassatelli said after the meeting. He will present his preliminary recommendation to the authority on Jan. 24.