The S-E's reporting on Utah jail deaths shows the value of local journalism

Wednesday , January 31, 2018 - 5:00 AM2 comments

DON PORTER
special to the Standard-Examiner

If you’ve been paying attention to news coming out of Utah’s county jails and the Legislature these past several days, you know how important a free press is to our corner of the world.

I understand the way things work when it comes to Utahns’, and Americans’, attention spans and regard for News We Need to Know: It’s a lot more fun arguing about who got snubbed at the Grammys and what piggish male won’t be showing his face at the Oscars than it is learning about jail standards and estimated construction costs of the new state prison.

I like fluffy, escapist news, too. But I try to balance it with meatier information.

So, if you’re still reading and haven’t moved on to look for the latest news about Tom Brady, Tom Hanks or other tomfoolery, here’s my plea: Take a look at my scribbles, then find a newspaper – like this one – and read its coverage of what you find below. Yes, it may alarm you, but at least you’ll know what our public officials are attempting, or have already done, to hide, deflect or obscure regarding subjects that are important to all of us.

Now, about those jail standards: The S-E’s Mark Shenefelt, a reporter with skills like few others I’ve known, has for months and months been leading out on news about inmate deaths in the Beehive State’s system of county jails. The information he’s revealed has other media organizations attempting to catch up, county sheriffs are complaining about the scrutiny and, most importantly, previously “secret” information about standards for public-funded jail operations will finally be shared with – I know, it’s hard to believe – the general public.

Thank you, Mark. And thank you, Standard-Examiner.

Next, let’s talk about something the Legislature’s been up to.

Remember a few years ago when it was decided to relocate the state prison? The primary arguments in favor of the move were: The current prison complex in Draper sits on land that’s become too valuable to waste as a correction facility, and the obsolete buildings need to be rebuilt. Besides, the lawmakers said in early 2015, it would cost only $500 million to build a new 4,000-bed prison – and that’s money we’ll recoup, they promised, from selling/developing the soon-to-be-empty real estate.

Then the new prison’s estimated price tag increased to $550 million, and not long afterward to $650 million. Now it’s been reported – and confirmed by state employees and even sheepish lawmakers, the original estimate for that planed 4,000-bed prison was actually closer to $800 million.

That’s right: Those original numbers of $500 million to $650 million for 4,000 beds were – to use the euphemism most popularly substituted for the word “lie” – a wee bit optimistic.

Quick, a show of hands as to how many of you are surprised the new prison will cost more than originally projected?

Just as I suspected: No one raised a hand.

The story now being told by lawmakers is that the actual bids for construction haven’t yet been submitted, so let’s not worry until we have something to worry about. As if the bids will miraculously come in lower than expected. The only thing lower is the number of beds lawmakers now claim will be necessary; that’s one way to trim the price, temporarily. The truth is, more beds will be needed, and soon, since Utah’s population isn’t shrinking.

At this point, I must admit, the only thing I’m curious about is shame. Do those who told such fanciful tales of anticipated prison-construction costs feel any shame? I wonder whether we’ve passed into a post-shame universe when it comes to politicians and what they do. The idea of feeling, let alone expressing, shame in the nation’s capital is a relic of the past. Will our state lawmakers behave similarly in this situation?

“Listen, we sold you a bill of goods,” I suspect they might be thinking, if not saying. “Grow up. This is politics, not Sunday School.”

Maybe I’m wrong. I hope my cynicism is misplaced. I hope they apologize.

But I’ll bet they won’t. I predict they’ll make more excuses.

I’ll tell you what: If they apologize, I will too – for expecting too little.

You can mail Don at dportercolumn@hotmail.com and follow him on Twitter @DonPondorter.

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