Prison officials hope new, friendlier facilities in Utah will help fill staffing gaps

The new Utah State Correctional Facility in Salt Lake City is just months away from opening, and officials hope the more welcoming environment will inspire more people to apply to fill the severe shortages of staff. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — The new Utah State Correctional Facility in Salt Lake City is just months away from opening, and officials hope the more welcoming environment will inspire more people to apply to fill severe staff shortages.

At first glance, the state-of-the-art building looks nearly complete, aside from construction crews working here and there on final projects.

It’s been in the home stretch since the inauguration more than four years ago.

“It’s an exciting time,” said the Utah Department of Corrections sergeant. Steven Hansen, who oversees the field training program for new correctional officers and works on the offender release program.

On a tour with Hansen and other employees on Thursday, most things seemed to be in place. Security cameras were installed and working with the latest technology, and mattresses and pillows were stored in each cell.

Aside from the chain-link fences and barbed wire, the facility is more welcoming than you imagine a prison to be.

An interior designer chose light, earthy colors based on Utah’s natural landscape and each section features its own color. For example, the General Population section has a muted sage green on its doors, while the Behavioral and Mental Health wing features a peachy pink.

A cell for two men in the medical and mental health unit at the new Utah State Prison in Salt Lake City is pictured Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021.
A cell for two men in the medical and mental health unit at the new Utah State Prison in Salt Lake City is pictured Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

The building is nearing completion, except for one important element: staffing.

“We’re hoping to hire a few hundred officers, honestly,” said Spencer Turley, director of prison operations.

That’s in addition to the 140 correctional officers Draper Jail already needs. The summer deadline becomes more pressing with new recruits spending three to four months at the academy, followed by four weeks in the on-the-job training program before they are ready to go, according to Turley.

“If we ever got to a point where we were like, ‘You know what? We can’t manage enough staff in the prison”, so we should come to: “What are we closing? “” Turley mentioned.

The Department of Corrections has contingency plans in place, which Turley said include using the Gunnison Jail or the department’s contract with county jails. But officials are doing everything they can to prevent that, he said.

The Department of Corrections has faced its fair share of hiring and retention issues, with corrections officers dealing with overtime, burnout and mental health issues.

Many officers left for local police departments offering higher salaries, which was a huge argument during funding requests for legislative sessions.

Hansen and Turley said the age of Draper’s current facility exacerbates the difficulty of hiring new employees. It was built in 1951 and they describe it as dark, rambling and decades behind in technology.

“When people work in a dungeon, we get depressed,” Hansen said. “I spent my time there where we got super low; it’s really dark.”

A male maximum security unit of a security watch at the new Utah State Prison in Salt Lake City is pictured Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021.
A male maximum security unit from a security watch at the new Utah State Prison in Salt Lake City is pictured Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Twelve hours a day in a dungeon-like environment affects one’s mood, he added.

“We’re the ones helping make this place work, we make this place work,” Hansen said. “And like in any relationship with anyone, if one part is struggling, all parts are going to be struggling.”

He has high hopes for change.

Hansen can see this just by looking at the walls and windows of the new correctional facility, which are designed to let in natural light and make every room bright.

Each block has 14 foot high windows with views across the valley. The campus itself, north of I-80 west of the 7200 west exit, is surrounded by Antelope Island, the Oquirrh Mountains, and the Wasatch Mountains. The building also includes facilities such as a daycare, fitness room, and dining room for staff members.

“Knowing that we have all of these things, all of these tools here for us, like a gym – it’s fantastic for our mental health,” Hansen said.

And with the help of the Legislative Assembly during the last session, the department is raising salaries.

“They gave us historic raises this year. They gave us more raise money this year than we’ve ever had in the history of our department,” Turley said.

Turley added that in addition to those funds set aside by lawmakers, an additional 3.5% increase takes effect in July. The department also offers additional incentives, including a higher severance rate for those with experience at other facilities and a $6,000 signing bonus for new agents.

Hansen views the new facility and incentives as a fresh start.

“It’s a whole new place. It’s a whole new thing that we’re trying to do, all of our programs — that we’re trying to change offenders, trying to change society,” he said. “We want people to be part of it with us.”

The Department of Corrections is hosting a job fair April 14-16 at the new correctional facility. In addition to corrections officers, Turley said the department is hiring other positions like therapists and food service workers. Click here to browse open positions and apply.

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