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Episode 4: When You Can’t Leave: Incarceration on the Lake’s Shore

Updated: May 13


a photo of Tea, is printed and placed inside the water at the shores of the great salt lake by lots of rocks

(Tea pictured above is currently incarcerated at the Utah State Correctional Facility, which was constructed on top of Great Salt Lake wetlands.)

Episode description

People who are incarcerated at the Utah State Correctional Facility face the impacts of the drying Great Salt Lake firsthand. While some of us may have the choice to leave if Great Salt Lake dries up, those who are incarcerated don’t have such freedoms. For this episode of Stay Salty, co-host Meisei Gonzalez talked with Tea, a person incarcerated, and Sunny, a mental health advocate who works with people at the prison. The prison is built on Great Salt Lake wetlands, and it’s often forgotten about invisible to society. In this episode, you’ll hear challenges and reflections of what it’s like being locked between land and lake, from hoards of mosquitoes to toxic dust storms. 


If you haven’t already, you can also read Meisei’s reflection, “Conversations Behind Bars,” of what it was like to interview Tea and navigate the barriers of contacting someone inside the prison. 


Below is a transcript of episode 4.

Episode Transcript


Tea: What's going to happen the the Great Salt Lake in the next 5-10 years? What's going to be there? Are they going to be able to restore it? Personally, it's going to affect me. 


THEME MUSIC FADES IN PLAYS IN THE BACKGROUND OF THE NARRATION


Meisei Gonzalez: Welcome back to another episode of Stay Salty: Lakefacing stories where we ask the question, Why stay, how to stay, and who gets to stay or leave, as Utah faces an environmental and health crisis, the drying of the Great Salt Lake. I'm your host, Meisei Gonzalez. And that person that you just heard was Tea, a 22 year old first-generation South Sudanese American, who was sentenced to serve 10 years in Utah State Prison. You'll hear more from T later in the show. 


WIND SOUNDS


When we started our initial research for this podcast, we really set a mission to connect with individuals who are at the frontline of this environmental crisis. Because a lot of the coverage of this issue has been really heavily emphasized on researchers and lawmakers and don't get me wrong, I love me a good infographic or research paper. But we knew that we needed more coverage of those who are feeling the impacts of this issue head- on in their day-to-day lives. 


And one place that just kept coming up as a place that is feeling the effects firsthand – it's literally built on the wetlands of the Great Salt Lake, and a place where individuals are often forgotten, invisible to society. We're talking about the Utah State Prison.


GATE CLOSING SOUND


MG: After doing some research and connecting with individuals who are currently incarcerated, or working in and out of the prison, we got to hear the challenges and reflections of what it's like being locked between land and lake. 


Sunny: I think for me, working around the prison, how it influences how I see and interact with the environment – I think it's just opened my eyes even more. One thing I will say, like, I am grateful for the proximity that I have with the work that I do, because I don't know if I would have been as aware had it not been for the work that I do. 


MG: That was Sunny, an advocate, and honestly, the best way to describe her is ultimate slay. She has lived in Utah for numerous years and in those years has worn many different hats, from working with incarcerated youth and individuals throughout Utah's prison and jail system to helping with mental health and therapy. And that's just to name a few things that she's doing.


Sunny: What it makes me think most about is not only the incarcerated population, but also the prison staff that go there every day, right, and who are forced to do overtime, and even with the mental health unit, you know, super understaffed. It makes me think of the impacts that it'll have on them and also all of their families. I mean, even visitors of incarcerated individuals, right. Some of the opinions that I've heard, right, from other people that do work within the prison, they they did not agree with the location of where the prison was built. That is a common thing that I've heard time and time again. And yet that was not taken into consideration by legislators or, right, the state of who decided to build it on this specific part of the Great Salt Lake and in this specific location. And granted, sure it's a great location in the sense of, they had I guess the space to build, you know, however many buildings they wanted. But even a part of the operation, the foundation, like they had to spend tons and tons of funds just to actually fill the initial foundation with dirt, because it literally, like the foundation did not exist to build the level of buildings that they have now. 


And so even that is concerning that, you know, this, this land is not suitable, right, to build, you know, the foundations that you need to, yet you kind of put this band-aid solution of we'll just put all this dirt. But that is not sustainable, though long term. And, and I know some of the prison staff are aware of that. But is anything being done? No. And they already spent all these millions of dollars upon millions to build it. So it's like already too late because right, they already, you know, finalized the project. But again, it just goes to show the lack of consideration and the lack of insight looking into the long term, how is this going to impact to the incarcerated population and their families and the prison staff, right? There's no conversation about that and that's the unfortunate part.


MUSIC


Sunny: The thing with the prison and how it's built, when you walk from building to building, you are outside, there's no tunnels that kind of connect to the different buildings, you have to be outside to go from one building to another. And so for most of the time, if you're, you know, staff there, yeah, you're outside, and you can feel it in the air, the dryness. And just the pollution and even like with  – you can quite literally see it like in the air.


MG: Aren't like the buildings named like, after different –


Sunny: Yes, different lakes. So there's Bear Building. So like, after Bear Lake, there's, oh my gosh, I'm like – for antelope, which is, I guess there's a lake called Antelope Lake.


MG: By the way, they named it off Antelope Island. I can't believe I spaced that in the moment. The more Sunny and I talked about where and how the prison was built, we couldn't help but reflect on how it felt intentional to, in a way, make those who are incarcerated out of sight and out of mind of the general public.


Sunny: When you drive to it, you quite literally feel like you're in the middle of nowhere. Like, it's almost meant to be hidden. It's so hidden that the majority of the population within Utah are not going to know that it exists there. I wouldn't have even known, like, had I not actually gone there and drive there as a part of, like, my daily schedule. It's quite literally in the middle of nowhere.


And it's so easy for people to not care. And that translates into how people view the incarcerated population as a whole, also, which doesn't help, right, because who advocates for them? 


MG: Sunny's insider details were really helpful in helping us visualize and hear firsthand those issues for prison staff and those who are incarcerated. But we also got to learn a bit about how Sunny is reflecting and in her own way dealing or coping with this environmental crisis.


Sunny: I grew up with the culture understanding that I am connected to my land. And we have a belief, right, within Polynesia, when we – it's important for us to treat our land with respect, the same way we would treat our bodies with respect. And we don't do that here. And I quite literally can see the way that we don't treat this land with respect; it is absolutely tied to the way that it will impact our bodies and our physical health and mental health.


I used to live on the island. So Tahiti, and I lived through a tsunami during my time there. And the locals already knew that it was coming like they could tell, right, just through signs of the sky, the birds and again, it goes back to people, Indigenous cultures who understand the land and know how to take care of it, know how to prepare in case of, you know, an upcoming emergency. And that's just not how the average American operates here.


MG: As you can see, this is a huge concern for workers. But what about those who are currently incarcerated? To find out the day to day struggles, we sat down and talked with Tea, a first-generation 22 year old South Sudanese American, who was sentenced to serve 10 years in the Utah State Prison. While his family roots are in South Sudan, he grew up throughout the west side of Salt Lake Valley from Glendale to Kearns.


Operator: This call is from the federal prison. 


Tea: Originally my family from South Sudan, I'm first generation, I was born in Salt Lake City. Salt Lake regional. And you know, I've been in Salt Lake City my whole life, born and raised, up in Glendale then I moved to the west side of the city to Kearns. And, you know, I've had eight brothers, all of us, you know, into sports and we just like to have fun and all that. 22 years old right now, out of prison charge, there’s conspiracies and all that and but it gave me quite a you know, it gave me 10 years and yeah that's where I'm at right now.


MG: Just a little bit of background, I actually grew up in Kearns. So where in Kearns did you grow up?


Tea: Oh, there's a -- there's a park across the street from my house, it's called West Ridge, yeah, West Ridge Park. It's right by Kearney Junior, Kearney Junior high school.


MG: Oh awesome, yeah I lived a little more up the street so like by the bakery is where I got to live.


Tea: Okay, yeah, yeah, I know where that's at yup.


MG: It’s like a small world.


Tea: Yes, small world.


MG: Talking with Tea, he shared his relationship with the Great Salt Lake before and during his incarceration on the lake's shores.

 

Tea: I feel like I used to go to the Great Salt Lake a lot as a kid and go on field trips and stuff like that in school when I was at Kearns Junior. I like seeing it, personally I fear for a giant up and I think we can do some to stop it and start building stuff around it because we're gonna get smaller and smaller. I like going over there. You know I swam in it one time. I didn't know you could swim in it. But it's just like we're walking up to it and there's like hundreds of feet of just nothing, you know, and then the water was there. Wow, this is drying up, it wasn't like this when I was a kid back then, you know?


I haven't seen it in a while, you know, it's a couple years since I've been out. I got incarcerated 2020. I haven't been out there in a while. I just see.


MG: Yeah, and I think 2020 was like the big year where they kind of like the alarms went off and said, Hey, the Great Salt Lake is drying and this is going to become an issue.


Tea: Hey, there’s this beep for the last second for the last like, got like 20 seconds left. I gotta wait 30 minutes and I'm gonna call you back.


MG: One interesting topic that came up with Tea was the controversy over where this prison was ultimately built. For those who may not be too familiar, the Utah State Prison didn't always call the shores of Great Salt Lake home. Back in the summer of 2022, it was moved from Draper to the wetlands south of the Great Salt Lake. And as we heard from Sunny earlier, it wasn't an easy build. They literally had to make the foundation from scratch due to deciding to build this on unstable land. 


Tea: I'd be thinking like, Great Salt Lake's gonna sink, well it's sinking, you know, it’s built on waters pretty much it's dried up where there's still water underneath you know, and it's like marshlands kind of you know, it's unstable, I don't think it's stable.


Well, us inmates, yeah, we kind of talked about that, you know, hey, one day they are going to have to close this place down because it's not going to last forever, it's not going to – it's uneven, it's going to start sinking. [It’s] Unhealthy all these bugs everywhere and like all the animals that be around and no one likes it, honestly.


MG: Moving the prison was not only expensive, but it also continued a problematic theme, that of placing infrastructure in the already strained West Side of Salt Lake City. These neighborhoods and surrounding cities have repeatedly been treated as sacrifice zones


Let's give you some quick background tea on the legacy of problematic developments around the Great Salt Lake. 


MUSIC STARTS


The lake has long been seen as a wasteland where industrial developments can thrive. If you've traveled around the lake, you may have noticed the massive extraction ponds owned by companies such as US Magnesium and Morton Salt. You may have also smelled the landfill dotting the lake shores. And you may have seen manufacturing and warehouse facilities popping up at the Inland Port. Right next to that port is the Utah State Prison. 


 A report from the Utah State Legislator said that the new prison facility quote, “brought public utility infrastructure to Salt Lake’s northwest quadrant, facilitating economic development, such as Utah's inland port,” end quote. The construction of the prison quite literally paved the way for the port. The more you look, the more it becomes obvious that the prison relocation connects to the larger industrialization of the lake.


Tea: I never was at Draper. That was – I've been in Salt Lake County for the past three years fighting my case. And while I was there, there were, that's when they started tearing it down and then they moved all the way out there to the lake. And I thought it was a rumor at first but then they were like no it's for real, they're moving it and everybody's getting transferred over there. 


MG: Another issue that our state was pretty aware of from the initial discussion about moving the prison to the Great Salt Lake is the environmental and health effects like toxic dust, hordes of mosquitoes, heat waves, and worries about flooding. Individuals who are incarcerated are feeling those impacts on a daily. 


MG: All of the, the dust storms that have been happening. Have you guys seen any of those increased or have you witnessed it?


Tea: Yeah, for sure. Yeah. Last summer when I got here there was, there was crazy and then that's when I really was like yeah, I'm not going outside like that. Sometimes they'd have to close the yard so we don't go out there and get like attacked by all the dirt and dust flying everywhere.


MG: Yeah. And that must be worrisome because you're saying like sometimes you have to close off the gates for you to be like, protected from the sand. 


Tea: Yeah.


MG: And that must be like, well you actually enjoy being outside and now outside is actually getting a little more scary to be in right?


Tea: Yeah, it’s getting closed off and stuff, you know.


MG: And with with a lot of this going on with particularly with like the sand and the dust, the toxic dust. How do you – how do environmental and public health issues like pollution and toxic dust impact you and your fellow inmates? And this is probably just the dust, like we know air quality's not the best in Utah. Like how is that affecting you guys?


Tea: Oh you know, I like, I like, going outside, you know, and I like feeling the cool breeze and the air of the salt, the salt water from the lake. It affects me. Shit, I don't like being stuck in a building all day. 


MG: Yeah, definitely.


Tea: It forces us to come inside when there's mosquitoes everywhere or, or the air is bad. And there's dust flying everywhere, you know?


Mosquitoes is crazy. They is everywhere. They are everywhere. They – outside for not even a second, you're getting attacked by 10 of them and they're just jumping on you, and you have to walk to chow and it's a long walk all the way down there and that whole stretch you're getting attacked by mosquitoes and can't wear anything over your head and can't wear hats over there.  Soi just kind of got to just, like on the walls you’ll see mosquitos like blood everywhere from just people smacking them. They disgusting and gross. Sometimes, if there's a lot of them out there I won't go to get food or anything like that. I'll stay back.


Oh, some of us have asthma. Some of us have asthma, you know, a side of me there. Unfortunately for me I can because I don't have asthma or that but I know a couple people who don't go outside because they're scared of inhaling that air out there and getting asthma attack or not being able to breathe, they can't exercise out there and Oh, I don't think it's really fair. It is what it is, we're in prison, you know. I know at Draper they were saying that they could for sure go play. So you know, play sports outside, run around, exercise, because it was far from Salt Flats and all that dust and air stuff. So now we're right there. Add in – for years, you know, in Magna and Kearns, Magna is – Kearns is on the border of Magna, almost, and the water is bad out there in Magna because, that area over there, the water is bad so they got like a lot of filters on the water here and all that, lot of stuff going on. 


MG: Yeah, definitely. I actually, during like my first year of college I lived in Magna and when I lived there, like my roommate and everyone was telling me, like, don't drink the water. Like we have to go get water bottles, like the water isn't good here. And that was kind of like a shock for me because I grew up in Kearns where we had like filters and everything, but in Magna that was something that I kept being told and that's something I always tell when I work with water and legislators like hey, people don't trust the water in Magna. 


Tea: We're right there by Magna, so I really don't trust it. I don't drink out of the sinks and them. I had to order water bottles and all that. They have filters on them but it's like adding the sale they don't have a filter on, you can't see it at least.


MG: One way Tea copes with this issue is by reflecting on his time at the lake before he was sentenced. And he's not alone in this. Tea actually knocked into a friend of his in prison and they reminisced about a trip they both had at the lake before being sentenced.


Tea: When I came over here I ran into a buddy of mine I was in the juvenile system and went together. I remember I was telling you earlier about how I went to the Great Salt Lake and swam in it.  Well he was on that trip and just you know, reminiscing about it, talking about it. I mentioned it to other people that it's shrinking, if everyone's like, alright is it gonna go away, or what's going on, you know – if no one's going to listen to us if we start saying – Hey, listen to us, and reached out, like hey, someone wants to do this podcast about the Great Salt Lake. But it's crazy, 'cause people are listening, want to listen to us from in here.


Yeah we just, pretty much went out there, at Antelope Island, that's where I was, and we went swimming. I thought I was – people were telling us, like, try to – try to hold yourself under water but it was impossible. You know? You were like floating because so much salt and I just remember coming out covered in salt. And I'm like, thinking like this is crazy we have a Salt Lake, like being in an ocean, you know, and –  


MG: Yeah, the lake is huge. So I bet that was a lot of fun to see everything and the salt was – that's something that I've been able to do. Just like float it.


MG: What do you hope will happen with the Great Salt Lake in the future? 


Tea: That the Great Salt Lake stays there for forever, you know, I hope we can help save it. Building around it isn't right. It would naturally, be there you know, I want to be able to take my family, my kids, when they get out, you know, if I have anybody, you know, in the future. This is – our city's known for this, it's what we're named after, you know, I want him to be old. and come to Salt Lake City there's no lake, you know what I'm saying.


MUSIC FADES IN 


MG: What message do you have for people to take away from your experience, and this can be with the Great Salt Lake, just your personal experience. And feel free to share as much as you'd like. I really want to hand over the mic to you on this part.


Tea: All the young kids out there you know, going around in the streets and gotta make a name for themselves and try to show out for other people. If they do what makes yourself and your family happy or your friends. Everything. Is the great outdoors. You know, go, go experience that. I was fortunate enough to go travel and see the outdoors but I got ten years in at the age of eighteen. I really didn't get to go change that much. You know, I'll take that stuff for granted you know. Family is everything. Do what you want to do, not what everybody else wants to do.


CREDITS


MG: Stay Salty: Lakefacing Stories is an Of Salt and Sand production. We explore what it means to stay in Utah through economic transition and climate crisis by producing multimedia projects with, by, and for impacted communities. The producers are Maria Archibald, Amelia Diehl, and Brooke Larsen. Podcast cover art is by Frances Ngo. Our visual director is Jeri Gravlin. Ashley Finley and Katherine Quaid are our event curators. Music is by Amelia Diehl. And we’re your hosts, Meisei Gonzalez and Olivia Juarez. If you like what you’re hearing, give us a review on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. Learn more at lakefacing.org and follow us on IG @OfSaltandSand.


MUSIC FADES OUT

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