New Utah Prison Opening in 2020 Will Emphasize Rehabilitation

The planned Utah prison will be inspired by the Las Colinas Women's Detention Facility in San Diego, shown above. Photo: KMD/HMC Architects Instagram The planned Utah prison will be inspired by the Las Colinas Women’s Detention Facility in San Diego, shown above. Photo: KMD/HMC Architects Instagram

By Christopher Zoukis

Major changes are afoot in Utah’s criminal justice system as part of the state’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

Approved in March 2015, the initiative is part of a series of changes approved by Gov. Gary Herbert to reduce incarceration and recidivism rates, save taxpayer dollars and provide solutions to the current system of incarceration, aiming not just to lock up offenders, but to change the lives of those who are incarcerated.

In addition to slowing the number of people being sentenced to prison, and sending low risk offenders — such as those with substance abuse issues — to be treated in the community, a wider range of rehabilitative and educational programming will be provided to prisoners to help ensure successful and long-lasting societal re-entry.

One way this will be accomplished is through a newly designed, 4,000-bed correctional facility near Salt Lake City, which will replaced the Utah State Prison in Draper. The facility, spearheaded by GSBS Architects, is slated to open in 2020. Drawing on concepts from the Las Colinas Women’s Detention Facility in San Diego, the new facility will undergo a name change to reflect more modern attitudes, and have more flexible space for treatment, health care, rehabilitation, education and job-training programming. Therapeutic communities to treat addiction and behavioral issues will be separated from the general population.

Prison official-inmate interactions will also be changed to a direct supervision model, allowing direct interaction with inmates to address any issues before they escalate. Increased personal interaction will allows officers and inmates to get to know each other on a more personal level. This method has been shown to reduce violence, decrease sexual assaults and enhance programming.

In addition to a greater focus on programming and rehabilitation, the new facility aims to normalize life for inmates as much as possible, straying from the traditional stark, vast institutionalized surroundings, using natural colors and light, with smaller units. These elements are important tweaks to assist rehabilitation and improve mental health. Research suggests that space, light, color, noise and views can shape how an institution helps people learn heal and reform, and are important considerations in the design of large facilities, including hospitals and schools.

This extends to some exposure to nature, even if in the form of videos and pictures. A study at Snake River Correctional Institution in Oregon conducted over the course of a year determined that watching nature videos even only a handful of times over a week resulted in fewer disciplinary referrals, 26% fewer violence infractions, and positive changes in mood and behavior lasting up to several hours. These normalizing elements are not just effective for behavioral changes inside facilities, but can help inmates adjust to life on the outside after release.

This transformative overhaul is a promising move for the future of Utah’s criminal justice system and a step away from the system of mass incarceration and a system based on punishment, toward a model of rehabilitation and builder safer, stronger communities.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.