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SALT LAKE CITY — Ben Aldana lives in Orem, where he works construction, is preparing for law school and spends as much time as he can with his wife and kids.
Just five years ago, however, he lived in a federal prison.
"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. … I have a 13-year-old son, (and) he goes to school with your kids. I go out in the community. You see people like me every day. You just don't know it."
Aldana is part of an advocacy coalition carefully tracking efforts to relocate the Utah State Prison from Draper. The group doesn't care which of the currently proposed sites is selected, only that the new facility is designed to humanely house and positively rehabilitate the inmates who will return to society once their sentence is served.
The Legislature's Prison Relocation Commission is considering five possible locations for the new facility: in Salt Lake County, west of Salt Lake City International Airport; in Eagle Mountain and Fairfield in Utah County; and near the Wal-Mart Distribution Center in Grantsville and adjacent to the Miller Motorsports Park outside Grantsville in Tooele County.
At a news conference Thursday morning, following the first of several open houses to be put on by the Prison Relocation Commission, members of the "People Not Prisons" coalition said they worry that conversations about the proposed move are being dominated by fear mongering and hyperbole.
"Prisoners aren't monsters; they're people. Look at me: I was a prisoner. I'm not a monster." Ben Aldana, former inmate
Coalition members cited a thriving Draper, which has hosted the prison for more than 60 years, as proof that a prison won't destroy the economy around it. They also refute the notion that proximity to a prison will attract a criminal element or put families at risk.
"Everyone who has been on the Prison Relocation Commission and everyone who has been sitting in the chairs of the audience have recognized this is a chance to do something with the prison beyond just warehousing people. … We need better outcomes coming out of the prison," said Jean Hill, government liaison with the Catholic Dioceses of Salt Lake City.
Much more dangerous, coalition members say, are inmates who are poorly treated and don't receive meaningful rehabilitation and re-entry preparation before their release, making them more likely to reoffend. They are campaigning for a justice system focused on preparing people to lead productive lives after prison.
"Somewhere around 95 to 97 percent of these folks will eventually return to our community and … become once again our friends, neighbors, our co-workers, our family members," said Andrew Riggle, public policy advocate for the Disability Law Center.
Aldana said that was the case with his incarceration. After several years of bad choices and stints in and out of Utah jails, he was convicted in 2005 of possessing iodine with intent to sell it for drug manufacturing and was sent to a federal prison in Oregon.
The first few years of Aldana's sentence were bitter and angry. He had little interest in reform or rehabilitation. It wasn't until he needed his wisdom teeth removed and made a number of trips to a visiting dentist that things began to turn around.
I had never been in a position where it was part of my responsibility to help anybody else, and then I was put there where it was my job to help educate people.
–Ben Aldana, former inmate
The dental assistants working in the clinic were fellow inmates, and Aldana asked about the job. He was accepted and dedicated himself to studying and working with the inmate patients.
"It kind of instilled in me a value. It helped me understand the value of helping other people," Aldana said. "Prior to that, I had never been in a position where it was part of my responsibility to help anybody else, and then I was put there where it was my job to help educate people."
Vocational programs like the one Aldana credits with his personal transformation are not as available or effective at the current state prison on Draper, members of the coalition argue. Likewise, they don't believe renovation at the aging prison would be logistically possible, if it happened at all.
"I think there's a misconception about how much available land is on that site," said Anna Brower with the Utah ACLU. "According to the design consultants, there actually isn't enough space to do that kind of building and demolition on the same property."
The next prison relocation open house will be held May 28 at Grantsville High. Email: email@example.com Twitter: McKenzieRomero