Too nice for inmates or redefined? Why new prison is much different than at Point of the Mountain

An outdoor space for spiritual and religious ceremonies, such as sweat lodges, is pictured at the new Utah State Correctional Facility in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 30. Corrections officials say the new prison will give inmates more opportunities to better their lives once they are released.

An outdoor space for spiritual and religious ceremonies, such as sweat lodges, is pictured at the new Utah State Correctional Facility in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 30. Corrections officials say the new prison will give inmates more opportunities to better their lives once they are released. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)


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Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Approximately 95% of the people who are incarcerated in Utah's state prisons will one day be released.

That's why Steve Turley says it's important to give inmates every opportunity to become successful.

"They will move in your neighborhood, my neighborhood, and we want them to be a good neighbor. We shouldn't be scared. We shouldn't be scared of an inmate who lives in our neighborhood. We should help them. We should assist them in becoming successful," said Turley, director of the Clinical Services Bureau at the Utah Department of Corrections.

He believes the new prison, called the Utah State Correctional Facility, 1480 N. 8000 West in Salt Lake City, will give inmates that chance to find success and correct the behavior that resulted in them being incarcerated in the first place.

"We're hoping they take advantage of it. That's the hope, that they can see what we're offering them and they'll take full advantage of what we have to offer," he said.

Last week, the Department of Corrections confirmed it had completed the transfer of 2,464 inmates from the old facility in Draper to the new prison complex. Just before the department began transferring inmates, Turley took KSL.com on an extensive tour of the new prison.

A medical and mental health unit is pictured at the new Utah State Correctional Facility in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 30.
A medical and mental health unit is pictured at the new Utah State Correctional Facility in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 30. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

While the new setup is less spread out than the Draper facility and will hold fewer inmates, there is more square footage per building, which will provide for more classroom space. That means there will be more counselors, larger class sizes and shorter waiting lists for inmates who need to complete life skills or counseling courses.

The new prison will hold approximately 3,700 inmates while the Draper facility held just under 4,000. The reduction in the inmate population is due to the Justice Reinvestment Initiative passed by the state in 2015 which calls for more programs and treatment to help nonviolent offenders and to save bed space for those convicted of violent and serious offenses. In addition to the approximately 2,400 inmates moved from the Draper facility to the new prison, about 1,700 will be housed in the state prison in Gunnison and another 1,600 will be held in various county jails.

The old prison lacked adequate space for treatment, rehabilitation, education and job-training programs, according to Corrections officials.

The new prison "complex," as it is defined by Corrections officials, will also have not only bigger classrooms but also libraries — including a family history library, seven nondenominational chapels, music rooms, computer labs, gymnasiums, recreation yards and even barber shops. That's in addition to programs that teach inmates skills they can use to get a job when released, such as welding, auto mechanics, and culinary arts.

The Horizonte School also has a program at the prison to help inmates obtain their GED. And the new prison complex has two infirmaries with more than triple the number of beds that the Draper facility had and rooms for dental procedures with more modern equipment.

"Really, it's a city," Turley said of the new west Salt Lake complex.

Pharmacist Mike Aasheim sorts medication blister packs at the new Utah State Correctional Facility in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 30.
Pharmacist Mike Aasheim sorts medication blister packs at the new Utah State Correctional Facility in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 30. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Adjustments have also been made to improve the level of mental health care that inmates receive, including "therapy rooms" for those in crisis, according to Turley. Rather than removing an inmate from their cell block and putting that inmate into an unfamiliar environment, rooms where a therapist can safely interact with an inmate — and the inmate can still see their cell — have been added.

Much has already been made of the large "detention-grade" windows that have been installed in each building, including in maximum security. The introduction of natural daylight is expected to have a dramatic, positive impact on both officers and inmates alike.

"There's been a lot of studies on what light does for your mental health," Turley said. "Currently in Draper, if you go to work you may not know if it's snowing, raining or sun shining for 12 hours. The light will help the mental health. If you go to work every day in a dark room, sooner or later it's going to affect you. I mean, after you work in a place for years and years and it's dark and it's gloomy, it affects you."

And everything found in the men's section is also available in the women's area.

Steve Turley, Utah Department of Corrections special projects director, shows how a curtain will provide privacy for female inmates and create a visual barrier between males and females in the new Utah State Correctional Facility in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 30.
Steve Turley, Utah Department of Corrections special projects director, shows how a curtain will provide privacy for female inmates and create a visual barrier between males and females in the new Utah State Correctional Facility in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 30. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

In the general population and the geriatric units, inmates can be housed in either cubicle-style living areas that give inmates more space to move around; a cell with eight bunks that includes a toilet and shower with some privacy; or a two-bunk cell that offers very little privacy. There are also single bunk cells in maximum security.

"The inmates earn what they get. We house inmates according to their behavior in prison. If they behave good, they can buy more commissary, they have more visits, they can have more time on the phone, more calls," Turley said.

General population inmates can even have visits from family members or significant others that are not separated by walls and glass, during which they can hug their loved ones and are allowed one kiss at the end of the visit.

During a ribbon cutting ceremony for the new facility in June, at least one of the speakers admitted that there was some concern during the planning stages of making the prison too nice for the inmates. But Turley said the end result is a facility that is still a prison, but also treats inmates with dignity.

"Inmates are human beings. They are. Our job in corrections is to assist them in being successful — not only inside a fence line but also outside. We want our offenders to be able to go out and live as much of a normal life as you and I live. We have a lot of programming, we have a great programming division," he said.

"It's like when you put a car on an assembly line. If that car gets off the assembly line without a headlight, without a steering wheel, without a rear left tire, it probably won't sell. Same thing (for) an inmate. Inmate comes in, we work with them to determine what they need. Do they need a high school diploma GED? Do they need life skills classes? Do they need therapeutic communities to overcome their addictions? So we assist them in what classes to go to."

But Turley also notes that it is still prison. The goal for the new complex is not only to give inmates more opportunities, but use advancements in security technology to more efficiently manage inmates, including providing more direct supervision.

A maximum security unit is pictured in the new Utah State Correctional Facility in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 30.
A maximum security unit is pictured in the new Utah State Correctional Facility in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 30. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Inmates in maximum security can only leave their cells for 90 minutes every other day and must have their hands and feet restrained whenever they are outside their cells.

"These are rough individuals," he said.

In the maximum security cells, there are elevated control rooms where officers monitor the inmates. In general population, officers will be with the inmates around the clock. This direct supervision style "allows officers to directly interact with inmates to address issues before they escalate. These modern supervision improvements have been shown to reduce violence in prisons, enhance programming and decrease sexual assaults," according to the Department of Corrections website.

According to Turley, line of sight is "critical" when building a prison, which is why the new complex was built to allow for a "direct supervision" style.

All of the main entrances to the buildings on the men's side of the prison exit onto what has been dubbed "Main Street," a long paved road that stretches from one end of the prison to the other. The new prison's lone guard tower is at the end of Main Street and has a direct view of the entire street. The tower is also in the line of sight of the prison's main control room, which also overlooks Main Street from the middle of the street.

"Whenever there is movement (of inmates), there is perfect line of sight whenever they come out of the building," Turley said.

A chapel is pictured in the new Utah State Correctional Facility in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 30.
A chapel is pictured in the new Utah State Correctional Facility in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 30. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

In addition to direct supervision, Turley said the prison's many lines of defense also include rovers walking the grounds and multiple alarm systems inside the fences.

"We're excited about it," he said of the new prison. "It will be better for staff, better for inmates. It will increase our operations, the way we operate, to be more efficient.

"A lot of thought has gone into this over the past six years with architects, contractors, consultants. This isn't just a five-, six-, seven-man show."

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Pat Reavy is a longtime police and courts reporter. He joined the KSL.com team in 2021 after many years of reporting for the Deseret News

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