It’s not your imagination. Here’s why there’s more trash on Southern Utah highways and trails recently

ST. GEORGE — Southern Utah residents have reported noticing an increase in litter on roadways and trails around Southern Utah. While local volunteer groups have taken up the charge to help address the problem, there is one critical element that has been noticeably missing from the equation since the start of the pandemic: work release prison inmates.

A ‘perfect storm’ of pandemic effects

This 2018 file photo shows the housing unit for state prison inmates at Purgatory Correctional Facility’s Community Corrections Center, Hurricane, Utah, Oct. 15, 2018 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

Dramatic changes and rearranging of inmate populations from Utah State Prison in northern Utah to Purgatory Correctional Facility in Washington County has created a deficit in the number of work release inmates across the state.

Chief Deputy Jake Schultz with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office who is in charge of jail operations told St. George News that prior to COVID-19, litter removal and landscaping maintenance fell to the Utah State Prison inmates that made up the work-release program at Purgatory as part of a state contract where inmates would finish out the remainder of their sentence at the jail. While doing so, the inmates were sent out to perform not only road cleanup assignments but were also tasked with landscaping and other outdoor maintenance work.

Schultz said a majority of the prison inmates that finish out their sentences at Purgatory spend at least one to three years in the Washington County facility before they are paroled, and many of them prefer to work while they await their release.

To that end, those inmates are placed in the work release program and housed in special housing units, and from there they are transported to various locations across Washington County in need of trash removal or other landscaping support.

That all changed once COVID hit, Schultz said.

Discarded plastic bag and other trash on state Route 9 in Washington County, Utah, March 22, 2021 | Photo by Ron Chaffin, St. George News

Following the shutdowns that began in March of last year, all transports to and from the prison completely stopped temporarily, and even after operations resumed months later, there were fewer state inmates being transferred — which in turn resulted in a drop in the number of state contracted inmates being housed at the Purgatory.

At the same time, Schultz said, the prison began to release the inmates who were close to parole to reduce prison populations, some of whom would have been transported to one of many county jails contracted by the state to house them, including Purgatory.

This was followed by a complete shutdown of the work release program that continued through most of 2020 – a move designed to reduce the risk of an inmate becoming infected on the “outside” and then bringing the virus back into the facility.

There were also dramatic changes at the jail, Schultz said, with inmate populations being rearranged to make room for “quarantine pods.” These changes continued into December and reduced the number of corrections officers available to supervise the crews working outside of the facility.

“So it was the perfect storm basically,” Schultz said.

This 2018 file photo shows the dorm housing state prison inmates at Purgatory Correctional Facility’s Community Corrections Center, Hurricane, Utah, Oct. 15, 2018 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

Since January there has been a slow reopening of the program, with crews working one day every two weeks, whereas before they were working 2-3 days a week. Schultz said operations will slowly increase as the state “reopens” in April.

Washington County Undersheriff James Standley shared similar comments with St. George News and said it was the early release changes at Utah State Prison that created the most significant impact on the work release program.

In just under a year, the jail has gone from 24 work release inmates down to just four, he said.

Standley added the facility had three six-person crews working steadily prior to the shutdowns, and now they have only one four-person crew that “everybody wants all the time.”

Regardless of the reasons behind the changes, Schultz said it is important for the public to know the county is making progress to ensure the highways and roads across Washington County are maintained.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “We haven’t abandoned our highways out there.”

The power behind the volunteer effort 

The increase in litter in the area – combined with the deficit in work release inmates – has prompted community and volunteer groups to organize their own cleanup crews to address the litter along Southern Utah’s roadways. One project completed Friday involved more than 200 St. George city employees who braved the early morning cold to clean up various areas along Interstate 15, Red Hills Parkway and other roadways both in St. George and within the county.

St. George city employees remove trash from Interstate 15 and Red Hills Parkway during cleanup project organized by nonprofit group “Love Where You Live,” Washington County, Utah, March 19, 2021 | Photos courtesy of the city of St. George, St. George News

David Cordero, spokesperson for the city of St. George, said the group started at 7 a.m. and two hours later had cleared 4,240 pounds – more than four tons – of trash.

The effort was organized by Love Where you Live, a grassroots nonprofit organization started by Raine Christensen who began  rallying the community to address the influx of trash littering the area, a cause that soon gained momentum when groups sprang up across the county to address the growing problem.

The group operates on three principals:

  • Raise awareness of the issue by putting out signs and reminder posts.
  • Work with local businesses to promote change and enhance accountability.
  • Commit to cleanup, which is a continuous effort to keep Utah clean by organizing volunteer groups and rallying together.

The group’s efforts appear to be working. Marc Mortensen, city of St. George director of support services, told St. George News that the organization recently formed a partnership with the city in an effort to keep the city litter-free, including the highways, I-15 and the walking-biking trails along the outskirts of the city.

Mortensen said city officials have had several meetings to address the ever-growing amount of trash appearing across the region, which he said is partially due to a rise in the number of visitors to Southern Utah over the last year. He also said two full-time employees were recently hired by the county to clear debris and take care of other landscaping projects.

L-R: Steven Glidden and his brother Gary Glidden of the Act of Kindness group doing trash cleanup on state Route 9 in Hurricane, Utah, March 22, 2021 | Photo by Ron Chaffin, St. George News

Another group, Acts of Kindness has also organized several cleanup projects and recently entered into a two-year agreement with the Utah Department of Transportation’s “Adopt a Highway” program to maintain state Route 7 and keep the highway litter free.

The group was formed by Gary Glidden, who was out on state Route 9 in Hurricane on Monday along with is brother, Steve Glidden, cleaning up trash along the shoulder.

Gary Glidden said that while the group volunteers wherever needed, the road cleanup effort has been at the forefront over the last several months. He said that during one recent cleanup project along one of the county’s popular walking trails, they removed more than 100 pounds of dog feces alone – which he said was “pretty unbelievable.”

He said the main objective of Acts of Kindness, per their name, is “to act” regardless of the project, adding that the effort is a “call to action” to keep Southern Utah beautiful.

Another group, the local off-road club Desert Roads and Trails Society, also known as the Desert RATS, has been putting a dent in the massive amount of garbage that is illegally dumped on Washington County’s public lands for years. Desert RATS organizes cleanup projects at least four times a year in addition to the annual Sand Mountain cleanup for National Public Lands Day.

To support the various clubs and organizations in their quest to clean up the outdoors, the city of St. George has supplies on hand to assist — including trash bags, gloves, road signs and so on. The items are provided free of charge.

Cordero said that these efforts don’t only help in the immediate but that litter removal and maintenance has another inherent benefit: People are less likely to litter in areas where none exists.

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Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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