Did you know that fewer than 5 percent of inmates sent to prison die incarcerated, even among those serving a life sentence? What becomes of the other 95 percent of us? We are released back into society, becoming your neighbors, co-workers, classmates, fellow worshippers and friends. It is up to Utah citizens to decide what kind of, if any, rehabilitative efforts are made prior to us being set free into Utah neighborhoods, shopping center, workplaces, schools and churches.
A recent Salt Lake Tribune article illustrated how many county leaders see only dollars and cents when they look at inmates. But should incarceration really just be an economic question? Utah lawmakers have long economized prison spending. The Utah Department of Corrections has systematically and dramatically reduced its education, programming and treatment of inmates, partly by choice but mainly because of budget cuts. It has eliminated post-secondary education and most vocational training programs, exactly the kind of programs that directly result in reduced recidivism.
The result of these cost-saving measures shouldn’t come as a surprise; Utah enjoys one of the highest recidivism rates—54 percent, among the six highest in the nation. When did Utah leaders decide it was OK to slash budgets and look the other way while Utah’s recidivism rate remains among the highest in the nation and its prison population bulges at the seams? I guess it’s OK, so long as legislators are adding surpluses to the rainy-day fund.
Utah has also resorted to warehousing large numbers of inmates in county jails for years on end with limited or no access to treatment and education before releasing them back into society. Some rural-county leaders are trying to convince Utah lawmakers to expand this program. According to the same front-page article cited earlier, these county leaders are using fuzzy math and equally fuzzy logic to assert, as Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollack does, that the state “doesn’t have to use taxpayer revenue” to build new facilities and that the counties will “be able to build additional beds at no cost to the state.” Who, other than Utah taxpayers, does Pollack think will be on the hook for the guaranteed 30-year contracts he is seeking?
County leaders would also have Utah taxpayers believe that their rural facilities will provide the same standard of safety, education, programming and health care as larger, state-run facilities. Nothing could be further from the truth.
First of all, rural communities lack the skilled workforce from which to draw the necessary professionals; they may have a huge labor pool that can easily be trained as low-skill prison guards, but they lack the highly educated therapists, medical professionals, educators and experienced correctional administrators required to ensure public and inmate safety while reducing recidivism.
Secondly, even if counties can lure the necessary skilled professionals to their communities, it is prohibitively expensive for such small facilities to employ them. By employing the types of professionals needed, the economy of scale in any small or medium rural facility loses any cost savings that might have been achieved. The way rural facilities save the state money is by cutting health care, treatment, programming and education; cuts that put the public at risk.
My hope is that Utahns will refuse to give in to the pressure of the self-serving, rural politicians who are manipulating Utah taxpayers into long-term contracts that further bind the state to a failed system and seek to profit from crime.
How much should Utah spend doing the only things proven to reduce recidivism: treatment, programming, education and the re-integration of inmates back into society? Utah leaders would rather ask, “How little can Utah spend to warehouse its inmates?” or, “How many rural welfare jobs can we create?” The truth is that no matter how little or how much Utah spends, eventually, over 95 percent of us prisoners will rejoin society.
The cure for Utah’s incarceration epidemic is not in spending the least amount possible, but rather to spend the right amount, whatever the cost, to treat, educate and re-integrate inmates back into society. What kind of community do you want to invest in?
ANONYMOUS PRISON INMATE
Central Utah Correctional Facility