- Associated Press - Thursday, May 22, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Utah lawmakers are taking early steps to find a new home for the state prison that now takes up 700 acres in a high-tech corridor south of Salt Lake City.

And prison officials warn the new site shouldn’t stray too far from town, contending they need a robust workforce nearby, plus plenty of volunteers.

A panel tasked with recommending a new site convened Thursday morning at the Utah Capitol.

“It’s not, ‘Are we going to move the prison?’ But it’s where and when and how,” Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said Thursday.

After more than a decade of discussion, state lawmakers and Gov. Gary Herbert signed off on the move earlier this year. Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said he’s received a slew of phone calls from landowners hoping to sell Utah the new plot.

Proponents say the current site is already running out of room and freeing the area for real estate development could bring in an additional $1.8 billion each year.

But critics question how much the move will cost taxpayers and how much more space is needed.

“This is a proposal to expand the prison, and I’m looking to see, how much?” said Jesse Fruhwirth of the Salt Lake City Prison Divestment Campaign.

Lawmakers haven’t identified specific sites, and they haven’t determined a price tag on a new facility. At the earliest, construction on the new facility would begin in 2018, panel members estimated.

The prison is now hunkered between operations for eBay Inc. and Adobe Systems Inc.

Local officials in Draper envision the site as a buzzing economic and residential hub. Digital renderings from the city show a center with space for laboratories, offices, shops, apartments and condominiums.

The commission of legislators and others voted Thursday to keep on the same outside consulting firm that studied how much the state would save or lose by keeping the prison versus moving it. MGT has estimated the state would earn about $100 million by moving the facility and selling the land.

Officials said the new facility must be relatively near courts, medical facilities and a community to provide prison staff.

Rollin Cook, executive director of the Utah Department of Corrections, agreed. He said the Utah state prison relies on volunteers to help provide inmate services more than any other state, so it’s important that the prison is accessible to towns and neighborhoods.

The planned move has sparked a larger discussion on prison reform as officials anticipate a growing inmate population with a larger proportion of women.

Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, urged the commission to focus on job-related training and other measures to curb repeat sentences. More space for mental illness and substance-abuse treatment, as well as additional classrooms for GED and other programs would also help, Cook said.

The new facility, Cook said, should also include female housing geared toward children and families.

The commission won’t be deciding what to do with the current facility once it builds a new site. Any such plans would likely need legislative approval, Stevenson said.

The panel is expected to make recommendations by January, when the 2015 legislative session begins.

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