Coalition of advocacy groups: Utah State Prison needs to move

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SALT LAKE CITY -- A coalition of legal aid groups and advocacy organizations for inmates, the disabled and mentally ill is pushing for a new prison, saying needed changes won't come without a move.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, the group "People Not Prisons" said a new Utah State Prison would provide a chance for criminal justice reforms, better rehabilitation options for inmates and a better work environment for Corrections employees -- something that is not available at the current Draper site.

"We can't afford to miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rethink the way we deliver treatment and support to all offenders," said Andrew Riggle of the Disability Law Center.

Jamie Justice, the director of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill-Utah, said it would not be possible to enact meaningful reforms that help people transition from prison to society without a prison move.

"We know based on all the studies that have been done to date that it needs to move," she said. "We can't have an effective facility that's conducive to an environment of rehabilitation and safety without a move. There's just not the space for it."

Anna Brower of the ACLU of Utah said it would not be possible for the prison to build a new structure and then tear down the old one on the same site. "People Not Prisons" has taken no stance on where the facility should go.

The group on Thursday took politicians to task for stoking the fears of their constituents by making claims about public safety dangers and economic development harm.

"We want to ensure that this conversation doesn't devolve into fear-mongering," said Jean Hill of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.

But the five sites where the prison could go have raised numerous concerns about the impact on their community. They claim a facility like a prison would stifle their economic development plans and negatively impact their neighborhoods.

At an open house put on by the state's Prison Relocation Commission on Wednesday night, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker sported a button on his coat that said "No Prison."

"There are environmental reasons, seismic and otherwise. But it's also in an area that's in the path of significant economic development for the city, for the region, for the state," the mayor told FOX 13 of why the prison shouldn't be located in Salt Lake City.

Reacting to the open house, former prison inmate Ben Aldana accused politicians of "pandering to the irrational fears of their constituents." He said a majority of inmates are eventually released from prison, and a "not in my backyard" attitude doesn't help with rehabilitation or a successful transition back into society.

"Prisoners aren't monsters, they're people," Aldana said. "Look at me. I was a prisoner. I'm not a monster. I go to work, I have a family."

The Utah Prison Relocation Commission has insisted that the legislature has voted that the prison will move, it's just a matter of where it will go. State lawmakers have said they could get a newer facility and spur economic development in the south end of the Salt Lake Valley and Utah County by moving the Draper prison. The group has scheduled a series of open houses to answer questions and solicit feedback about it.

The remaining open houses will be held:

Thursday, May 28, 2015, 4:00 - 9:00 p.m.
Grantsville High School
155 E Cherry Street
Grantsville, UT 84029

Tuesday, June 2, 2015, 4:00 - 9:00 p.m.
Frontier Middle School
1427 Mid Valley Road
Eagle Mountain, UT 84005