SALT LAKE CITY — Architects designing a new Utah state prison said Monday they’re trying to cherry pick the best ideas from hundreds of other modern correctional facilities around the country to create a campus that focuses on the rehabilitation of inmates so they don’t commit more crimes and return.
The project is an extraordinary opportunity to create a prison from a blank slate that normalizes day-to-day life for prisoners, said Kevin Miller, president of GSBS Architects, during a presentation to the state legislature’s prison development commission.
Construction of the 4,000-bed prison is expected to cost $550 million and be completed by fall 2020.
Miller’s firm, hired by the state, showed several design options featuring different layouts and shapes for a prison campus that would be about 1.2 million square feet (111,000 square meters).
Taking into account that not all prisoners are the same, the goal is to give lower threat inmates more comfortable settings so they are prepared to make it in the outside world when they are paroled, he said.
For example, the plan is to have dining halls for prisoners to avoid having inmates eating in their rooms. Another idea would allow prisoners to make their own appointments for haircuts rather than standing in line at a designated time.
“We’re trying to change the way these guys think about their lives,” Miller said. “The object here is to really challenge the way we do it now.”
Construction has not yet begun, but officials announced Monday that they expect in late October to reach a closing agreement to buy land several miles west of the Salt Lake International Airport that lawmakers approved last year for the new prison site.
The old prison in Draper is expected to be cleared and ready for redevelopment by 2022.
Miller’s team has looked at 100-200 prisons around the country and even outside the U.S. in Canada, Argentina and northern Europe, he said. They have toured some, but mainly looked at pictures online and shared ideas with state officials.
“We showed them some images of some housing in Scandinavia which looked better than the dorm I lived in in college,” Miller said.
Designs for the exterior of the prison won’t be done until next year, but Miller reiterated that the goal is to make it look less like a prison and more like a normal building.
Rollin Cook, Utah Department of Corrections executive director, said they’ve already decided there won’t be any big towers that are customary for prisons.
It’s unclear what kind of a wall will surround the new prison.
Anna Brower, spokeswoman for the ACLU in Utah, said she’s encouraged by the concepts outlined by the architectural firm.
“I’m impressed so far, but I hope they will keep meeting regularly throughout the process,” Brower said. “We have to remember there are inmates and family members and loved ones who are hearing rumors and getting misinformation so to just keep people updated on what’s happening is a huge relief.”
Committee members asked for better estimates about how much the inmate population might grow over the next half century to make sure they build a campus big enough, but otherwise had only a few questions.
State Sen. Jerry Stevenson, co-chair of the committee, said he’s pleased with the progress: “This is a 100-year project for the state of Utah and it seems like we’re preparing for that well.”