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Utah’s prison history is one made up of larger and larger prisons being constructed with more and more beds, which are then filled up with more criminals for lesser and lesser crimes. Politicians and officials today are now forced to insist that the goal of incarceration practices in Utah isn’t to “warehouse” people, but when at the very beginning our first state prison was one located far, far from the rest of the community, one has to wonder how true that is. Like other parts of the country, Utah is caught up in a juggling act, prosecuting people, jailing them, releasing them but then doing the whole thing over again when those individuals eventually end up committing the same “crimes” over again. Despite the implementation of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative in 2015–whose aims are to restructure bed usage in prisons, probation and parole supervision and to support re-entry and treatment services that are matched to the needs of those moving in and out of the system–and even Governor Gary Herbert himself recognizing that the prison system in Utah as it exists is basically a revolving door of recidivism, our imprisonment rates continue to grow (1). It’s my intent to outline briefly how we got here, from the time of Utah’s first prison to the one we have now in Draper, along with the plans for the new one that looms dark over us, with even more beds to fill.
The first “state” prison went by many names: The Utah State Penitentiary when it was simply a Territorial prison (the country’s first), the United States Penitentiary when control passed to the U.S. Marshals, and later, colloquially as the Sugar House Prison. It was built about 6 miles away from downtown Salt Lake City on 1400 East and 2100 South, constructed between the years 1849 and 1854 (2). The reasoning behind creating what was at the time just a jail is a little shaky looking back, but Mormon lore tells it that a ‘49er passing through stole some bread or something else inconsequential. Theft by other pioneers passing through was apparently not uncommon, and knowing how the Mormons of the time felt about outsiders, it’s understandable that they decided they needed a place to house criminal strangers, preferably far from the rest of the community. This first prison was surrounded by 12 foot tall adobe walls, with a walkway along the top for surveillance. There were only 16 cells.
With such weak adobe construction and “poor treatment” by the inmates, who often escaped (only 17 prisoners out of 75 booked between 1854 and 1864 actually served their full sentences because it was so easy to escape), the prison was crumbling and in need of reconstruction (3). I could get into the weeds about how there were a million hang-ups surrounding that–mostly regarding poor funding and Utah’s tenuous status as a territory–but it’s beside the point of this narrative. Long story short, the territorial prison was eventually taken over by the U.S. Marshals in 1871. As the prison crumbled, prisoners were contracted out for labor, a common practice at the time. The prison followed the same general structuring as the rest of the country, a system called the Auburn System popularized out east, where inmates worked and ate together but stayed in their own cells at night. According to a 1952 thesis I found from the BYU History program, the Mormons considered the “contracting out” system to be one of rehabilitative success, and the author of this thesis also maintains that they were less cruel than other prisons around the country, going as far to insist that not one person died between 1855 and 1878. Inmates were also offered “educational and religious services” early on, though given the LDS church’s history with offering up those services, one can assume this was at least partly motivated by a desire for converts. Of course, there are no records provided to support this, and bias is detectable in the dated piece (4). However, even the author admits, amongst reflections on the prison’s struggles with basic physical integrity, “… penal institutions, because of their very nature, cannot hope to reform a great number of prisoners… because one living for many years in a prison community can hardly be trained to live in a community composed of normal human beings.” But our author, James B. Hill, doubles back on that immediately after, maintaining that released prisoners do eventually, “alter their make-up” and become useful members of society (5).
This moment of doubt is telling, however, as well as his insistence that the labor (contract work but also factory work done within the prison itself with machinery) the prisoners were made to do was somehow inherently beneficial to them. Hill acknowledges plainly that the very nature of imprisonment–of keeping people away from normal society and forcing them to stay within a space crafted to limit their freedoms, independence, and identity–isn’t actually very likely to logically fix anything about a person, especially one bound back for the normal world eventually. And with contract work by prisoners having been outlawed in 1888, that’s 70 years between then and the time of Hill’s writing where prison labor was probably–because of its outlawing–viewed as exploitative. It follows that Hill also probably had some understanding of it being exploitative.
But it’s the refrain that Hill goes to himself, and again and again throughout his thesis, that that first prison and its labor tactics were rehabilitative that is still a common refrain today. The way that the practice of forced labor is tied to this redemptive rehabilitation narrative implies that committing to thankless work and exploitation is humbling, and requalifies the laborer as a human ready to take up some kind of citizenship, again. This narrative ties productivity into a knot with citizenship, eclipsing the reality and dignity of what it means to be human—which hurts not just the prisoners forced to labor, but any un-jailed citizens engaged in labor under capitalism.
The Sugar House prison was initially very far from the rest of the Salt Lake community, but as the community expanded into the foothills around Sugar House, and the prison continued to decay and become more and more of a money pit, and as the 1890 outlawing of polygamy made the small prison swell with prosecuted polygamists, all plans to fix the prison were abandoned in favor of building a new one at the Point of the Mountain, now Draper. Needless to say, this was also a conveniently far-off location (20 miles off) from the developing and quickly sprawling Salt Lake community. The construction took many years, with the plan being initially proposed in the ‘30s, beginning in the early ‘40s, but not reaching completion until ‘48 because of economic complications due to WWII.
When the prison was finally (mostly) complete, the shuffling of prisoners to the new spot was tumultuous to say the least. Prison riots peppered the move, partly because of shakey personnel changes, but also because of issues with favouritism between wardens and prisoners, mistreatment from the wardens, and poor food being provided to the prisoners. After these riots, reforms by the prison’s new Board of Pardons made the prison more segregated between officers and prisoners, to prevent “fraternization,” whether that be favoritism or confrontations. They also created a handful of “handcraft programs” to allow the prisoners to profit and stay busy, though the article written contemporarily on the subject didn’t mention how much those prisoners profited from their new labor avenues (6).
The new prison was also much bigger, and our friend Hill’s opinion of the new facilities was thus: “The cost of operating this new prison is much greater than the old Sugar House prison, because there is much more space, but an increase in investment should pay longer and better dividends in human improvements.” Again, this seems to be a vague, hopeful assumption based on some idea that imprisonment–especially more efficient, regulated imprisonment with larger capacities for containment–is inherently good and beneficial to prisoners. And if you’ve been paying attention to the discourse surrounding the proposed new prison just west of Salt Lake City, as well as the smaller adjacent discourse surrounding the Salt Lake County Jail, you’ll recognize that this crutch of bigger, more advanced prisons being some end-all, be-all solution is enduring.
Today, despite the fact that crime rates have gone down in recent years, there is an influx of inmates in Utah’s prison, and also in Salt Lake’s county jail. This is due mainly to drugs and alcohol offenses and probation and parole violations. Those two recurring problems are in fact linked. Utah is one of the only States with such a stark inmate growth (as of 2017 Idaho was our companion there, though), and it’s also one of the leading sites of the national opioid epidemic. So, all those drug offenses and parole violations that are landing people in both the county jail and in prison? Many are opioid users, who, once caught and convicted of drugs crimes, don’t receive help because of the state’s lack of funding for treatment programs proposed by the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which remain devoid of funding because of state backtracking on Medicaid expansion. Convicted opioid users, left with no treatment, go back to using, breaking their parole and ending back in the carceral system again. The same offenders, it seems, are endlessly repopulating the prisons (7).
This, on top of the increase of homeless people on the streets in the last few years has resulted in an increase in “quality of life” offenses as Chief Mike Brown called them in 2016–forgery, shoplifting, trespassing, simple assault, drunkenness–and thus even more arrests. The problem then, though, is that there aren’t enough beds in the county jail to hold these street offenders, leaving officers with no option but to write offenders up with a misdemeanor, and letting them back out on the street. After three misdemeanor charges, charges can be upped to a felony, which then funnels offenders into the swollen prison system. The county jail operating as an ineffectual temporary holding place for offenders isn’t new: The Salt Lake City police department has been rounding up homeless offenders in particular around Pioneer Park for decades now, and in 2017 at least, Chief of Police Mike Brown, DA Sim Gill, and Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder were all in agreement that the cycle of rounding up, releasing, and, now pushing repeat offenders on to the prison is completely useless. All three also agree that a more “holistic” approach is needed on top of more beds in the county jail, with treatment programs desperately needed for vulnerable populations—those trapped in the cycle of homelessness, those suffering from addiction, those suffering from unchecked mental illness (8).
But, with the construction of a prison to house more prisoners looming, it seems that this cycle is just bound to continue, despite the fact that it also seems that the larger our prisons get, the more compelling it is to fill them, for lesser and lesser offenses. The fact of the matter is that addicts, for one, don’t need to be criminalized and jailed or imprisoned, and they, just like the other vulnerable populations mentioned above, would benefit more from not being dragged into the jail and slapped with a misdemeanor offense at all. The answer is not just “treatment programs and jail,” but rather it is to throw away the carceral response to crime entirely, to radically rethink why certain actions warrant stripping people of their basic freedoms. If we–citizens and government officials alike–truly cared about the people who are constantly moving through our cyclical prison systems and considered them as valuable parts of society just like anyone else, we would focus on rehabilitation first, instead of trying half-heartedly to fit it into this model of imprisonment.
- “Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI).” CCJJ: Justice Reinvestment Initiative, State of Utah, 2019, https://justice.utah.gov/JRI/default.html
- Deseret News, Lynne Arave. “Utah State Prison History: Favored Penal Sites Always ‘Way out of Town’.” Deseret News, Deseret Management Corporation, 16 Apr. 2018, https://www.deseret.com/2018/4/16/20643412/utah-state-prison-history-favored-penal-sites-always-way-out-of-town
- Hill, James B. “History of Utah State Prison: 1850–1952.” Brigham Young University, BYU Scholars Archive, 1952, p. 46.
- Hill, James B. “History of Utah State Prison: 1850–1952.” Brigham Young University, BYU Scholars Archive, 1952, p. 4.
- Hill, James B. “History of Utah State Prison: 1850–1952.” Brigham Young University, BYU Scholars Archive, 1952, p. 5.
- Lundberg, Horace W. “Post Riot Changes in Utah State Prison” University of Utah, University of Utah, 1954, p. 32.
- Carlisle, Nate. “Utah’s Prison Population Is Rising Faster than Any State but One, despite Many Reforms.” The Salt Lake Tribune, 28 May 2019, https://www.sltrib.com/news/politics/2019/05/28/all-utahs-justice
- Reavy, Pat, and Katie McKellar. “The Jail Crisis: How Did We Get Here?” Deseret News, 12 May 2017, https://www.deseret.com/2017/5/12/20612335/the-jail-crisis-how-did-we-get-here