Utah State Prison nearing full capacity

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Utah's state prison system is nearing full capacity and that could result in some inmates being released as early as this summer before their sentences are up, the state corrections chief said Wednesday.

Department of Corrections Executive Director Tom Patterson told a legislative committee that there are only 108 beds left for prison inmates.

The prison system has about 6,800 beds statewide, which includes space at two prisons and at county jails contracted by the state to house inmates.

Patterson said in the past two months, 74 inmates have come into the prison system and that he was expecting at least 10 new inmates each month. Once the prison system is full, Patterson said inmates will be housed for 45 days in gyms and open spaces, which pose a greater security threat for guards.

Once those 45 days are up, prisoners will start being released early.

"We have to find an ongoing solution. We can't stay at maximum capacity because at some point you will allow a violent offender out, and there is a risk to the community," Patterson told reporters following the hearing.

Patterson said there are about 300 beds available at contracted county jails, but no money was available. Housing one prisoner typically costs about $26,000 a year.

About $50 million designated for new housing at the state prison has been cut, as well as $7.6 million for a new parole-violator center run by a private contractor that would have to be funded at similar levels every year.

The $50 million for new housing at the Gunnison prison would have resulted in 192 new beds and included planning money for another facility with 288 beds.

Patterson said losing funding for the parole-violator center has translated into a loss of 300 beds, which could have housed up to 900 inmates a year and helped inmates address problems that frequently results in their return to prison once they're released.

"Presently we bring parole violators back into the facility on technical violations to keep the public safe, and what we need to do is have them in an alternate setting," Patterson said. "Typically these are drug and alcohol relapse issues that we're dealing with."

When questioned by lawmakers whether the parole-violator center or new space for prison beds would be more cost effective, Patterson said the center would be better in the long term.

"We do believe it's more accountable to the taxpayer," he said.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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