GUNNISON -- After six months in prison Damon Conrow feels better than ever and looks optimistically toward another couple of years.
He works out in the morning, running laps between barbed wire fences in the arid yard of the Central Utah Correctional Facility.
A weight gain of at least 30 pounds and clean-cut hair make him almost unrecognizable from the emaciated self he was in winter when he was injecting heroin several times a day into nearly every part of his body.
He laughs in a jovial and carefree manner that seems to be coming from a 20-something at the cusp of his life, not a prison inmate convicted of a first-degree felony charges of drug distribution.
"I have to look at it as the positive thing that it is," he says. "I could be out there committing crimes and doing drugs or be in here. I can't say that I'm living the good life, but it's making me a better person for all I know."
To most, the idea of prison being a welcome life opportunity is absurd.
But for Conrow it was a chance to get better. Desperate, he asked the judge for a longer prison sentence than was originally set for his crime.
In January, the 26-year-old Ogden resident pleaded guilty and voluntarily increased his sentence from second-degree felony to first degree felony in hopes of finally getting over a heroin addiction that for seven years had slowly wrecked his life.
"Now's the time if you want to change your mind," 2nd District Judge Pamela Heffernan offered on Jan. 19, the day Conrow appeared for sentencing.
"No, I'm fine with it," he said decisively before being handcuffed and led out of the courtroom straight to the Weber County Jail.
Though he graduated from drug court and had already served a shorter prison term, Conrow said he opted for a longer sentence to try to get into the popular Con-Quest Residential Substance Abuse Treatment program for inmates.
It's different this time around, he says. It wasn't other people who told him to get clean and get his life together. It was his own desire to finally get away from drugs.
"Damon is the first guy who looked at me and said, 'I want to go to prison,' " said Agent Ken Huckaby with the Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force. He initially arrested Conrow and remembers him as a "nice and articulate" person.
While some people can afford to enter a long-term drug rehabilitation program, many others cannot, explains Huckaby.
"That is the problem with Damon's situation -- he doesn't have the money," he said. "Being locked up is his only solution."
Conrow is hardly alone with his problem. He fits neatly into a demographic of educated young people who start experimenting with highly addictive, yet readily available, prescription painkillers containing opiates -- OxyContin and Percocet among them. Soon they are unable to sustain their fledgling addiction through legal prescriptions, yet don't have the cash to buy the pills on the street.
The much cheaper heroin is easily accessible but will throw users into a downward spiral that few are able to escape, said Sgt. Troy Burnett, also of the Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force.
"Those are powerful drugs that are extremely addictive," Burnett said. "I don't know very many people that have beaten the addiction."
This year so far the strike force has seized almost 6 pounds of heroin and arrested more than 40 people on heroin-related charges, both numbers more than the past two years combined.
Burnett believes if the trend continues, heroin will surpass methamphetamine as the main drug of choice within the next few years.
"Our heroin use has exploded," he said. "It's off the charts."
Before sentencing, Conrow lived in his father's basement, awaiting the day he would go to prison.
He watched television and ate little but jelly beans and mandarin oranges. He was no longer dealing drugs and needed to get them in other ways. He sold his belongings to raise money.
When the craving started, he'd rock back and forth impatiently. He'd cuss like a sailor and walk in seemingly endless circles until he could get his hands on some heroin. Then he'd go into the bathroom and try to find one of a few visible veins that hadn't yet collapsed, often in his thigh, his hands or fingers.
He'd use a blow-dryer and shave his arms to be able to see the veins. He'd swear more and hurt himself, trying over and over again to poke a needle filled with the black substance into his body until he finally succeeded.
He would hit the freezing winter air for a smoke, then fall back on the couch, watching television and eating jelly beans -- until the drugs wore off and forced him into action once again.
In the constant race against time, where oncoming withdrawal in the form of nausea, body aches and flu-like symptoms overcame his body, Conrow needed the heroin two to three times a day just to feel normal and pain free, not to get high. In fact, he said, he hadn't been high in many months.
He'd lost most of his friends, weakened ties with his family and continued to narrow his life down to one quest: finding heroin. And more heroin after that.
"I regret getting into drugs every day of my life, every single day I regret it," he said back then, his eyes slowly falling shut.
Conrow was a good student, smart and fun to be around, said Mark Conrow, Damon's father. But at some point, when Damon was around 18, Mark started noticing a difference in his son. Damon looked thin and started dozing off in the middle of the day, becoming more distant.
"He finally told me that he took heroin, is addicted to it and can't stop," Mark Conrow said. "I've never seen anything take over somebody like that, it's so powerful."
Attempts to help him have failed and, over time, Mark Conrow has become bitter.
He's seen Damon discharged from prison, motivated and ready to tackle life. But within a few months during which the young man was neither able to find work nor rent his own apartment, Mark saw his son being swallowed up again by the addiction that wrestled him to the ground.
"The stress of seeing him do that to himself is sometimes more than I can handle," Mark Conrow said. "I'll always love him to death but there are times when I don't want to be around him."
As a parent, Conrow is frustrated. Unable to help his son, he wishes there was a support system outside of prison that would help Damon succeed despite the criminal drug record.
Punished over and over again for a bad choice he made years ago, Damon has little chance to build up his life anew, Conrow said. When the only way to make money is to work under the table or start selling drugs again, he says the chances of relapse increase exponentially.
"I'm not happy with the rules for felons in this area, I think they're set up to fail," Conrow said. "I don't think he should be discriminated against."
So for now the father is relieved his son is in prison. He knows that's where Damon is taken care of, drug free and safe. They talk on the phone about once a month because, despite the addiction, Conrow said Damon is still the good person he used to be back in high school, back before the drugs.
The Con-Quest program and others similar to it have proven successful in providing a stepping stone before an inmate is released back into society, said Stephen Gehrke, spokesman for the Utah Department of Corrections.
About 63 percent of all male inmates and 79 percent of all female inmates list substance abuse therapy as a priority when entering the system, Gehrke said, adding that drug addiction "obviously is a major issue" for his department.
Con-Quest at Draper is a residential intensive program that teaches inmates skills needed to remain drug free after their release.
It is hardly a surprise that the program has a high reputation among both officials and inmates. A 2004 study by the Utah Substance Abuse and Anti-Violence Coordinating Council showed that inmates who go through Con-Quest have a recidivism rate after 18 months less than that of inmates who met the criteria for the program but never entered it.
Con-Quest generally takes about one year, depending on how well the inmate progresses, Gehrke said.
Entry into the program is usually scheduled toward the end of an inmate's prison sentence, so participants will remember what they have learned once they are released. When the Board of Pardons sets an estimate for Conrow's release date, the process of getting into Con-Quest starts through an automated system that assigns inmates who are ready to enter the program.
Conrow, Gehrke said, has a very good chance of making the program before his release.
"You do have to help people no matter how highly or lowly we look at them," Gehrke said. "People who are in the prison population today are going to be our neighbors so you have to do everything you can to address this problem."
Sitting in a sterile visitation room in Gunnison, Conrow doesn't seem to remember exactly who the person was that entered prison six months ago.
He hasn't done drugs. He's quit smoking. He's applied for a prison job, has taken classes, jokes with the prison guards and politely tucks in his shirt, one of the many strict rules in prison.
With no heroin in his body, it's sometimes tempting to think that things would be all right if he went home soon. But then he thinks of the last time he returned to Ogden after a prison stay. Within months he was hanging out with old friends in the old neighborhoods and soon found his old foe - some stinky black liquid floating in a syringe.
And it's in that moment that he remembers why he pleaded up when everybody else thought he'd lost his mind: To keep himself from himself for a while so, hopefully, this time around things will be different.