A bill passed out of the House today to move forward with a new authority relocate the Draper prison and develop the land underneath it, but not before Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, amended the bill to prohibit the new prison being operated by a for-profit company, arguing inmates should be treated as human beings and not commodities.
Senate Bill 72 passed the House after receiving its sixth substitute and now heads back to the Senate for debate on the changes. The bill is designed to allow a board to accept proposals for sites to relocate the Draper prison if economically feasible, as well as to accept bids for redevelopment and sale of the 690 acres of prime real estate the prison currently occupies in Salt Lake County. A committee that has previously studied the move says the relocation could bring $20 billion to the local economy and tens of thousands of jobs to Utah over a period of decades.
But, critics have been wary of a Senate amendment added after the bill passed out of committee that allowed for a private company to bid on operating the new prison. Noel supported the role of the private sector in developing the land underneath the prison and in construction and relocation, but cited research from University of Utah professor Russell Van Fleet showing that private prisons are more costly than state-run prisons.
He also worried the profit motive would conflict with a prison’s objective of not only reducing recidivism -- the rate at which prisoners re-offend and return to prison. Inmates leave prison and come back to our communities, Noel pointed out. A for-profit prison would actually make more money if the prisoner re-offends and returns to prison, and then would not be interested in reforming the inmates who leave the facility and return to Utah communities.
“How do they come back?,” Noel asked, “As a changed citizen, or are they just recycled back through the system for another $28,000 a year?”
Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, the floor sponsor for the bill, argued that the decision should be left up to the board the bill would create and argued against the amendment. But in closing argument, Noel challenged again that the profit motive didn’t belong in prison operation and the rehabilitation of inmates.
“[With private prisons] there is an incentive to have prisoners in the system, to reduce medical costs, to reduce programming costs and to reduce education costs, purely for profit,” Noel said.
Ultimately, his colleagues in the House agreed, voting to approve the amendment by a vote of 42-29. The amended bill then passed out of the House by a 51-20 vote. It now heads back to the Senate for more debate on the House changes.