SALT LAKE CITY — By the time it’s finished, Utah’s newest state prison will have cost taxpayers close to a billion dollars.
In 2015 when state officials were talking about building a new state prison, the estimated cost, shared at open houses in communities like Grantsville and Saratoga Springs, was $550 million.
Ultimately, the state settled on a site on the far west side of Salt Lake City, and a campus of more than 30 buildings are taking shape on the 250-acre site.
Jim Russell is the director of the Division of Facilities Construction and Management for the State of Utah.
He tells FOX 13 the price of the new prison jumped considerably the moment the current site was selected, due to its corrosive soils and high water table, but there was no going back.
“Our estimate was $860 million,” Russell told FOX 13 News.
As construction has continued, Russell says, the costs have continued to rise.
“We should be under a billion dollars with the final price tag,” Russell said.
While many find the costs concerning, the state’s most well-known watchdog group says they’re not overly concerned for now.
“Given the rising construction costs with everything else, it does seem in line. It doesn’t seem to surprise us at this point,” said Rusty Cannon, vice president of the Utah Taxpayers Association.
Cannon noted that a typical high school costs over $100 million to build in today’s economy, and the prison’s 30 or more buildings would also be affected by rising costs of materials and labor.
With the first buildings of the new prison complex on track to open by year’s end, groups like the Utah-based Prisoner Advocate Group are wondering less about the price, and more about the facilities themselves.
“Before our son was incarcerated, I didn’t know that much about the criminal justice system,” said Roni Wilcox, one of the organization’s founders.
Wilcox says Utah’s prisons are rife with fixable problems and says she is not surprised by high recidivism rates, and says she knows of several inmates who are currently lacking basic healthcare. She wonders if the new facilities will somehow be better.
“The new prison provides optimism and hope,” said Brian Nielson, Utah’s new director of the Utah Department of Corrections who recently toured the construction site and shared some first impressions with FOX 13.
“It is really a simple thing, but having sunlight in an area where they’re housed, that’s almost unheard of, and what a difference that makes,” he said.
Nielson says medical and mental health care facilities will be better at the new prison, but said it’s too early to elaborate on specifics.
Aside from new buildings, Nielson says success will require a new mindset.
“And we have plans to assist with it,” he said.