‘A massive jail complex in our backyard is insane’: Iron County residents concerned with new jail proposal

Approximately 50 people attended an Iron County Commission meeting to speak about a proposed new county jail, Parowan, Utah, Nov. 22, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

CEDAR CITY — Several dozen residents attended Monday’s regular meeting of the Iron County Commission, with many of them weighing in on the county’s plans to replace the 34-year-old Iron County Jail, which officials say is the oldest county correctional facility in the state.

Approximately 50 people attended an Iron County Commission meeting to speak about a proposed new county jail, Parowan, Utah, Nov. 22, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

The commissioners prefaced the public comment period by explaining that discussions about the need for a new jail have been taking place for at least the past several years.

“This is a process that we’ve been working on even prior to this commission,” Iron County Commissioner Mike Bleak said. “I’ve been on the commission for about five years now. We were working on this process with Commissioner Adams and Commissioner Brinkerhoff as well. We did some feasibility studies on some different sites.”

Fellow Commissioner Paul Cozzens added that when he took office three years ago, his first thought was that the current facility didn’t need to be replaced but could be remodeled instead.

“I was adamant and very opposed to tearing down our current correctional jail,” Cozzens said, adding that his opinion changed after talking with the sheriff’s office. 

“As I learned more about that process … it became apparent from some of the things they talked about, about how we just flat need this,” Cozzens said. “We need to replace it.”

Cozzens referred to an analogy that county auditor Dan Jessen had made a couple weeks earlier regarding the status of the current jail.

L-R: Iron County Commissioners Marilyn Wood, Mike Bleak and Paul Cozzens welcome attendees to the commission’s regular meeting, Parowan, Utah, Nov. 22, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

“He said, ‘We’ve got a car that’s got 200,000 miles on it, the transmission’s going out, the engine needs to be rebuilt, the car’s full of kids, the wife’s pregnant and we’re out of room,’” Cozzens said. 

Although there weren’t any jail-related items on Monday’s agenda, a number of people showed up to the meeting to voice their concerns regarding a 40-acre parcel that the county is reportedly looking into buying as the site for the proposed future jail. The property is located between 600 North and 800 North, centered at about 3500 West, just north of the Smead paper products manufacturing plant.

During the 45-minute comment period, approximately 20 residents expressed their opinions, with most of them sharing concerns about the proposed location.

“It’s not that we’re opposed to a new facility for our police officers,” one man commented. “We know they need it, we know our community needs it. We’re just opposed to the location so close to our homes and our families.”

“I just ask that you take the time to consider all options and not affect those that don’t want it in their backyard,” he added. 

Another commenter said his children’s school is within walking distance from the proposed facility, which he called “unacceptable,” especially as the topic of prison escapes had been raised.

“We don’t want those to happen, but they do,” the  man said, “and you can’t promise me that that’s never going to happen.”

Iron County Jail, Cedar City, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of jaildate.com, St. George News

Another man said that “placing a massive jail complex in our backyard is insane.”

“This jail’s too close to schools, school bus dropoff locations and multiple daycare facilities,” he said. “A building like this is much better in an industrial area, not around establishing growing neighborhoods.”

However, it was previously pointed out that the parcel in question is already zoned industrial. Additionally, the present jail at 2136 N. Main Street in Cedar City is located within about a half mile from three public schools: Fiddlers Canyon Elementary, Canyon View High and Canyon View Middle.

Iron County Sheriff Ken Carpenter, who wasn’t present at Monday’s meeting due to illness, later told Cedar City News that to his knowledge, there have been no escapes involving locked-up prisoners in Iron County Jail’s history.

“I heard a rumor that there was one that ended up in Summit, but I don’t have any factual based information at all as to whether we’ve ever had one,” he said.

Over the years, Carpenter added, there have been a “handful” of low-risk inmates known as trustees that have walked away from work-release programs and not reported back to the jail.

“That really just hurts them because trustees are usually within a very short time of being released,” he said, adding it “rarely ever happens.” 

File photo of Iron County Sheriff Ken Carpenter, Cedar City, Utah, July 30, 2020 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

Carpenter cited figures stating that there are only about 2,000 escapees or walkaways a year across the United States, representing approximately 0.1% of the estimated 2 million people who are incarcerated. 

“And even with that, the vast majority of escapes are during transport and not from the facility itself,” he said.

Carpenter also said there haven’t been any issues or incidents related to the current jail’s proximity to nearby schools.

“We have children walking by our facility every single day, and we’ve never ever had any type of negative interaction between the trustees and any of the children,” he said. “They’re very closely supervised, and we don’t have those problems.”

During Monday’s meeting, a woman asked where inmates are released after they’ve finished serving time.

“Where will they go?” the woman asked. “There’s no public transportation. Will you be taking all of the out-of-state prisoners back to their original state? Or will this jail be perpetrating crime and homelessness in our neighborhoods because there’s nowhere to go?”

Carpenter told Cedar City News that federal and state inmates are not released locally.

“That never, ever happens,” he said. “They go back to their respective jurisdictions. The only inmates that are ever released here are our own county inmates.”

A number of those present on Monday were also in attendance at a previous meeting held Nov. 6 at the sheriff’s offices adjacent to the current jail. Public input wasn’t permitted during that session, as it was meant to be strictly an informational meeting.

It was during that earlier session that Jessen shared his used-car analogy.

“We’re going to be completely out of room, even if we have no contract inmates, in 11 years,” he said.

Lt. Shalon Shaver, commander of Iron County Jail, discusses the present facility’s aging infrastructure, Cedar City, Utah, Nov. 6, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

Also during that meeting, Iron County Jail commander Lt. Shalon Shaver and other jail officials showed slides depicting some of the current facility’s worn-out infrastructure, including corroded sewer pipes, frayed wiring, leaky ceilings and myriad other problems.

In addition, Jessen detailed various aspects being considered, including cost analyses, modeling projections and possible building designs. 

A few of the newer correctional facilities in other parts of the state were looked at as examples, including those in Cache County and Uintah County.

Jessen said the main focus of his number-crunching efforts was to figure out a way to pay for a new correctional facility without raising taxes.

“I’ve been trying to figure out how we can cash-flow this jail and not do a bond election,” he later told Cedar City News. “And we figured out we can do it. If we can keep the upfront costs down, we actually won’t have to go and do a bond election, and there’ll be zero tax impact.”

Iron County Auditor Dan Jessen discusses possible plans for a new county correctional facility, Cedar City, Utah, Nov. 6, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

He added that they have been looking for property that “checks all the boxes.” 

“We’ve been looking for years,” he said. “I know some people think that there hasn’t been transparency, but I’ve had it as a line item in my budget. In fact, I’ve had it as a specific slide in my budget presentation for years now – that we’re setting money aside and looking for land.”

Several other potential sites that have been considered have fallen short for one or more reasons, he said. 

One such site, mentioned by multiple commenters on Monday, is on county-owned property west of Iron Springs Road near the county landfill.

Jessen said one of that location’s main drawbacks is the added expense it would take to run water and sewer lines to the site and make other needed infrastructure improvements.

Additionally, Carpenter told Cedar City News that the Iron Springs location, being approximately 10 miles away from downtown Cedar City, would add significantly more time and distance to every trip.

One possible site for a new Iron County Correctional Facility is just north of SR-56 and west of Lund Highway, Cedar City, Utah, Nov. 23, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

“When you consider some places like Brian Head or Parowan, location really makes a big difference as to how long their officers are going to be out of their jurisdiction while taking somebody to jail,” he said. “We need to keep those things in mind too. Making them drive 50 miles one way to take somebody to jail is not feasible.”

During Monday’s meeting, as Bleak thanked those in the audience for their attendance and input, he reiterated that the project is still in its preliminary stages and emphasized that the commission wasn’t trying to “pull a fast one.”

“At this point, we’ve looked at a piece of property that could work for us,” he added. “We don’t have conditional use permits in place yet, but it does appear to be the best option. But with that being said, we absolutely want some input. We don’t have engineering done; we don’t have plans drawn up for the new jail. We are so early on in the process that we don’t have much information to share with you. And when we do get that information, we certainly want to share it immediately.”

Cozzens made a similar plea as he urged his fellow commissioners to “slow down this process” and take their time before making a final decision “because there is so much concern, and it’s an emotional process.”

“We’re open to suggestions,” he told those in attendance. “If any of you find locations that might be better, we’re open to looking at them.”

Commissioner Marilyn Wood said she and the other commissioners will be glad to take phone calls or comments or even visit with residents personally.

The commissioners indicated they are planning to hold some type of public meeting sometime soon, possibly in December, where residents and officials can discuss the issue in greater detail.

“We need to have some town halls with our law enforcement and have them give reasons why they think it should be closer to town,” Cozzens said. “And help educate, inform and get feedback from everybody in the public.”

Monday’s meeting attendees were asked to write down their names and email addresses to receive future updates and announcements. To join the list, send an email to Iron County Clerk Jonathan Whittaker.

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

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