SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The state prison system faces an "overcrowding crisis" that Corrections officials say can be temporarily relieved through inmate transfers. But in the long run, more money may be needed, they told legislators Tuesday.
Despite efforts to keep parole violators from returning to prison for minor infractions, inmate counts have risen steadily since October, mostly from an influx of new criminals, said Mike Sibbett, parole board chairman.
"We're pushing maximum capacity," and if inmate growth is left unchecked, it may compromise prison security and eventually require the early release of convicts, he said.
The Legislature funds the prison at 5,500 beds. Recently the number of prisoners reached as high as 5,640, and as of Monday was 5,578, said prison spokesman Jack Ford. Sibbett and Corrections Executive Dire ctor Mike Chabries said the first step of the temporary fix is to close Draper's minimum security Lone Peak Correctional Facility and relocate inmates and staff across the street to the larger, currently not used, Promontory facility.
"This will free up 100 beds," Chabries said. "No new staff will be needed and any extra costs for food and laundry will be handled within the existing budget."
The move will take place as soon as next week, but no later than May 2, Chabries said.
Chabries said that if demand escalates, he will open the new 288-bed Aspen wing of the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison in August. The wing was constructed years ago but never funded.
The opening will cost $1.6 million the first year, to be covered by money set aside to repay the bond on Promontory and savings accrued from a decrease in utility costs due to the mild winter and the loss of prison guards to the war in Iraq.
To keep Aspen open through fiscal year 2005, Corrections will need another $2.2 million, Chabries said.
Ford said the prison has stretched state funding as far as it will stretch by moving up parole dates and loosening sanctions for minor parole violations, such as drinking or failure to secure a job.
In August, about 100 offenders were paroled days or even weeks before their scheduled dates.
Utah currently has 702 unfunded beds in its prison system.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)