SALT LAKE CITY — Political leaders held a ribbon cutting ceremony at the new Utah State Prison site, marking the completion of a massive project that began over six years ago.
"It absolutely was worth it," Governor Spencer Cox said Wednesday.
The prison is one of the most expensive construction projects in state history. It cost over a billion dollars to complete and suffered a number of delays. There were issues with the land itself, then construction and labor complications (the prison was competing with the new Salt Lake City International Airport project nearby), tariffs and rising construction costs. More than 1,500 people worked on the new prison through COVID-19 and even an earthquake.
"Absolutely worth it," said Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, the Utah State Senate's budget chief who served on the site selection commission for the new site. "I think those of us on the inside knew because of the increased value of what was going on with the old prison site."
The old site will be torn down and developed. It sits on prime real-estate at the Point of the Mountain. The old prison, built in 1953, was nearing the end of its life. The new site presented an opportunity for change, especially as the legislature advanced criminal justice reforms.
The lower-profile prison campus blends more into the environment around it. There is more of an emphasis on rehabilitation over incarceration in the design.
"Our staff will have more interaction with those that live here, that are incarcerated," said Brian Nielson, the executive director of Utah's Department of Corrections. "This facility was also built with programming, education, medical, mental health. Those are a forethought. Those are not something trying to be added on after."
Inmates will be moved in by the end of the summer. Because of security reasons, the Utah Department of Corrections refused to say exactly when inmates will be transferred to the new facility.
Comprised of 35 different buildings on 200 acres of land, the new Utah State Prison includes new things like dorm-style living and staff working in the cell units. There is an emphasis on natural light, something the old site did not have.
"Some of our current housing units, you walk into those and you don’t know if it’s daylight, dark, nighttime, daytime. You don’t know if it’s snowing, raining, sunshine or anything else," Nielson said.
In his remarks at the ribbon cutting ceremony on Wednesday, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said he objected to a "dead end" sign just outside the prison gates.
"The whole purpose of investing a billion dollars out here was to help ensure this facility is not a dead end for the 95% of those that come out here, that leave here," he said. "It's in our interest and their interest that this prison and this facility is not a dead end, but it’s a place where they can hit the reset button and leave better than they came in."
Governor Spencer Cox agreed, and personally removed the sign on his way out after finishing a tour.
The process to pick a location for the prison was controversial, with neighborhoods actively protesting whenever the site selection committee would visit (some lawmakers said they even got threats over it). They settled on land west of the Salt Lake City International Airport.
Sen. Stevenson said he believed it will ultimately prove to be a good thing for the city.
"This will become a diamond for Salt Lake City," he said. "The reason it will is because of what is taking place around this site. The development that will take place here. We hope manufacturing, in conjunction with the inland port."
Right outside the prison gates, work was already being done for a warehouse that is expected to be part of the larger inland port project. Driving east toward the city, big warehouses fill in the landscaping. The state funded the infrastructure for the area, and is expected to recoup some costs through that.
But the larger boom for the state will come from the sale of the prison land in Draper.
"Which will be a huge and unique, a multi-generational opportunity for our state," Gov. Cox said.
The Draper prison site will be transformed into a major tech hub (and some are hopeful for a sports stadium there, too).