Six years and over $1 billion later, Utah’s new prison is ready to open

Those held at Draper are scheduled to be moved to the new location west of the Salt Lake City airport in the coming weeks.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. gov. Deidre Henderson cut a ribbon at the opening of the Utah State Correctional Facility in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 22, 2022.

It took longer than expected and well over budget, but officials are nearing the end of the largest construction project in state history: the new Utah State Penitentiary.

In just a few weeks, those currently incarcerated at Draper Prison are expected to be transferred to the new 200-acre facility located 5 miles west of Salt Lake City International Airport.

Heads of state celebrated Wednesday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, marking the end of a long and often controversial process after years of debate over costs and location.

“I’m so amazed at where we are,” Gov. Spencer Cox said Wednesday while standing on Main Street of the massive prison complex.

Building marred by challenges, rising costs

Where the prison facility ended was an expensive choice as the land is near the Great Salt Lake and is soft and requires additional basic support.

The project was originally expected to cost $550 million in 2016. However, those costs rose to $1.05 billion by Wednesday’s ribbon-cutting.

Jim Russell, director of the facility construction and management department, said they encountered many obstacles in building the new prison.

They were in direct competition with the new airport for contractors and workers, he said, and had to contend with construction costs going “crazy” over the six-year period.

They struggled with corrosive soil, bad weather, hot summers and cold winters. Not to mention the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on workers or the 2020 earthquake on buildings under construction.

As he toured the new facility, Russell said he noticed how sunlight streamed into the dormitories through the skylights and large windows.

“What a big deal,” he said. “This facility is based on having a more normal behavior. And so I stand by the inmates and their families who are here now and will be here in the future, and I hope this facility will help them rebuild their lives and families.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lt. Michael Millward gives a tour of a general population apartment block at the new Utah State Correctional Facility in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 22, 2022.

Cox expressed similar hopes that the new prison will be a place where people will learn new skills and be ready to re-enter society after serving time for crimes they have committed.

“Because we know that most of them, almost all of them, will be with us again one day,” he said. “Living in our communities. We hope that when they return to our neighborhoods they will have the tools needed to rebuild their lives. And that doesn’t happen if you just pigeonhole people.”

The Draper prison is massively expanded

However, the prison’s move wasn’t just about modernizing derelict buildings or providing a safer facility for incarcerated Utahans. The 600 acres that the Old Draper Penitentiary sits on is estate real estate and is considered the greatest economic development opportunity in Utah’s history.

The government-sponsored business development is expected to feature new homes, trails, open spaces and parks along portions of the Jordan River.

“The old prison site will bless this state’s finances for many, many years into the future,” said Sen. Jerry Stevenson, co-chair of the Prison Relocation Commission.

(Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, via The Point of the Mountain State Land Authority) The Point, according to new plans, will consist of a series of counties and subcounties. The federally sponsored commercial, residential and green space development at Point of the Mountain in Draper is planned for 600 acres along Interstate 15 and the Jordan River on the soon to be relocated Utah State Prison site. Planners are drawing public comment through May. Work on The Point could begin sometime after 2022.

Stevenson said Wednesday during the ribbon-cutting ceremony that state officials made the right decision to move the jail west of the airport.

“As Brigham Young said, ‘This is the place,'” he said. “This is the right place for the Utah State Penitentiary.”

Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson said Wednesday he couldn’t help but notice a “dead end” sign on the new road leading to the jail. He asked the governor to tear down the sign.

“This prison is not a dead end,” he said. “But it’s actually a place that [those who are incarcerated] we can hit the reset button and get out of here better than we came in.”

Cox took up the legislature to the challenge. An hour later he was standing at the edge of the long street, the jail in the distance, looking up at the big yellow sign and trying to figure out how to bring it down.

Did they have a sledgehammer? no

Maybe he could shoot it? Beside him was a police officer with a handgun, but that wasn’t necessary.

A construction crew had come by and loosened the lug nuts for the regulator, so it only took a few hard shoves for the ‘dead end’ sign to fall over.

Then Cox pulled out a black marker and scribbled his signature on the signage.

Just above the capitalized “DEAD END,” the governor wrote, “To new beginnings.”

(Jessica Miller | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox wrote a message after removing a “dead end” sign leading to the new Utah state penitentiary. Six years and over $1 billion later, Utah’s new prison is ready to open

Joel McCord

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