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New Warden in Town 

Q&A with Utah State Prison's Larry Benzon.

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ENRIQUE LIMÓN
  • Enrique Limón

There's a new top cop at Point-of-the-Mountain. He's Larry Benzon, warden of Utah State Prison for the past six months. The 52-year-old Monticello native supervises 665 employees—and, of course, some 3,000 inmates spread over the sprawling Draper prison site.

You came up through the ranks at USP, right?
Yes, I started as an officer and worked my way up to sergeant, lieutenant, captain and major, then associate warden and warden. I've worked in almost every area of the facility.

What's been your biggest challenge thus far?
Getting public support for the job each and every officer does. These women and men are the backbone of our facilities. Every day, they willingly put themselves in harm's way for public safety. Prison is not what you see on TV or movies: The days when officers were called 'guards' or 'bulls' are over. Officers are expected to resolve issues and sometimes violent confrontations with only the power of their presence and words. These officers are professional and highly skilled ... but because of a TV show or movie, they're often judged by that very poor example.

What more can be done to rehabilitate offenders?
We have a robust programming division that provides substance-abuse treatment, education, religious programs, vocational trades, sex-offender treatment and many other evidence-based programs shown to reduce the risk of re-offense after release. We work collaboratively to identify the risks of individuals and their specific needs. ... But there's always more we can do.

What do you tell citizens who say, 'Throw away the key'?
Most of the offenders have made a mistake in their lives—as each of us have in one way or another. Some of their crimes are pretty heinous, while others are victimless. But I believe each of them deserves the chance to change—to be a productive citizen. Most offenders—I believe about 95 percent—at some point will return to the civilian population. Community involvement after release will help these guys get housing, work and stability after they get out. We're making great strides in getting there.

What about gangs at USP?
There are several gangs within the correctional system. Some members are very violent and can be unpredictable. Officers and our gang unit work diligently to identify and house them where they can receive education, programming and job trades without disrupting the entire facility. Gangs are ever-evolving, and we have to stay on top of it.

Some states face a shortage of corrections officers. How about Utah?
Every state has issues. ... Some don't have our high standards with certification and testing. And some have lower starting pay. We struggle because few people wake up one day and think, 'Hey, I'll go to work for the prison.' Officers often have been portrayed as mean and untrustworthy. It's only when these people are exposed to actual officers at job fairs or at another public function, they realize the stereotypes are completely wrong. During the last legislative session, we put in place a pay plan that will help recruit and retain qualified staff.


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Lance Gudmundsen

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