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Beyond Bars: The failure of Utah prison’s substance abuse treatment programs

By Brian Wood, Beyond Bars Column - | Mar 5, 2018

This is an article I wrote over a year ago while I was still in prison. I was reticent to share this at the time for fear of retribution by staff members within the prison. I apologize for the length; though, I still don’t feel this adequately details the corruption involved. I usually try to be positive, but in this case it’s impossible, so I won’t apologize for my tone.

I recently completed the HOPE program at Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison. The majority of the prison’s drug offenders are placed in this residential substance abuse treatment program for one year during their incarceration. They receive classes, counseling, extra amenities and many other things.

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HOPE stands for Helping Offenders Parole Effectively. The goal being to reduce recidivism, or the likelihood a prisoner will be sent back to prison after being released. 

I entered the program with an open mind and a positive attitude. Let me first say I believe many prisoners need substance abuse treatment and I believe the HOPE program was an honest attempt at a solution, at least in the beginning. Unfortunately there are some realities of prison that make it impossible for HOPE to function as it was intended.

The HOPE program is based on the Therapeutic Community model. The idea is that community members hold other members accountable for their actions, meaning prisoners are encouraged to tell on each other. I found a couple of problems with this.

Problem 1: Prisoners don’t tell on one another because it’s dangerous. Prison culture is not about to change for the rules of a program. Being a rat is the quickest way for an inmate to become the target of violence. If there’s something prisoners are, it is patient, and many are also unscrupulous, mentally ill and violent. These are not the characteristics of individuals you want in an enemy.

Problem 2: The HOPE program is made up of individuals who are being forced to participate. This creates a mentality to fight tooth and nail against every aspect of the program, making a healthy therapeutic community impossible. 

The idea, I imagine, in being willing to tell on other inmates is to see if you will change your way of thinking from the criminal perspective. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. I never saw a single prisoner use “the process” (telling on someone) in a therapeutic fashion. I only saw prisoners use the process as a weapon.

The program entices prisoners to become snitches by offering financial incentives and additional privileges. This usually appeals to the most shortsighted and instant-gratification-seeking individuals (typical drug addict issues). They trade their own safety for power, money and privileges. This trade feeds into their antisocial personalities and their manipulative and selfish tendencies. Prisoners who choose this path cannot return to general population for obvious reasons, but they are few.

So how does it work if a prisoner is unable to follow the rules of HOPE without great risk to personal safety? They don’t need to, because everything is faked. Prisoners go through the motions of “the process,” fill out the necessary reports and accept consequences, but it’s a charade. Staff knows this but there’s really nothing they can do about it and probably don’t care to. They just play along too.

When a prisoner graduates from HOPE, the claim is that he has been given the tools to stay sober and succeed in society. Most of this learning and development is supposed to occur in the first four months in what is called “Intensive.” My intensive schedule was a mix of inmate and officer-led classes. The classes have names like “Stress Management,” “Relapse Prevention,” “Anger Management,” “Conflict Resolution,” Overcoming Addiction” and other catchy titles. I imagine funding (your tax dollars) is secured by pitching this wonderful bouquet of personal growth and recovery courses provided to offenders, especially when a licensed state employee is facilitating these courses.

The inmate-led classes consisted of us sitting at the tables in our section and looking busy. We often did this for five to six hours per day. On days when state employees actually held their scheduled class, which was only about half the time, the instructor would often come in, turn on a movie and leave. I can’t recall being taught anything except on the last couple days of classes each term. This was when we would go over the test questions and answers, so that we could all pass the tests. It was a complete sham.

The writing assignments were a positive thing, however. These assignments had prisoners focus on the negative impact drug use had on them and the people close to them. Prisoners also had to identify potential obstacles in their future and create plans for dealing with those things. If there were a redeeming aspect to the program, this would be it; however, my personal experience has led me to believe the HOPE program cannot function the way it was intended in a prison environment as long as its community members are being forced to participate. The vast majority of the HOPE program was a colossal waste of my time and an even greater waste of taxpayer money.

The real tragedy is that some prisoners may have been saved had they been offered tools that really helped them stay sober. It seems like every week I heard about a HOPE graduate coming back to prison or dying from a drug overdose.

The prison is not responsible for the actions of these men, but if offenders actually received treatment described in the HOPE program, maybe some of them might have gone on to live productive lives — or just lived, period.

Brian Wood, of Layton, pleaded guilty to nine felony charges for offenses from 2011 to 2014, including counts of burglary, drug possession and prescription fraud. He served four years in the Utah State prison system before being released on parole on Jan. 2, 2018.


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