Not too long ago, this newspaper published a response to my article about the HOPE program at the Central Utah Correctional Facility (CUCF). It was written by none other than the executive director of the Utah State Prison — the guy who runs the whole show and is appointed by the governor. We clearly have differing perspectives about the HOPE program. I didn’t read what he wrote and think that he was wrong; I saw someone defending something they care about and believe to be a good and positive thing. With that in mind, I took the opportunity to contact his office and ask for a meeting. Somewhat to my surprise, he welcomed it.

I met with Mike Haddon for three hours. A tremendous amount of ground was covered, but the big takeaway for me was this man was willing to listen and has a desire to make things better. I am uniquely suited to provide insight, but I am not so arrogant as to think I have all the answers or that I understand the big picture. He let me know that officer morale is something he would like to make a major focus, and as you can imagine, when I formulated a list of a dozen things to talk about, officer morale wasn’t on my radar.

The first topic we discussed was the HOPE program. When I went through the program back in 2015, inmates were heavily coerced into “volunteering” for the program. When we were selected to go to the HOPE program, we were walked into a classroom and sat at desks and then told to sign a paper. Those who did not sign the paper to volunteer were literally put into handcuffs and sent to “the hole.” After a month of refusal, one would get let back into population, but that inmate would be locked in his cell after 9:30 a.m. for the duration of his incarceration and would not be able to order regular commissary. This had the desired outcome in that almost no one was willing to say no. The consequence was that inmates who were forced to participate ruined the program for those who might have wanted to be there and were trying to improve themselves.

Mike told me that, to his knowledge, this is no longer the case. He said he would double check to make sure the program is completely voluntary and asked me to let him know if I hear otherwise. This is only one small thing, but it tells me his focus is about making things better. I cynically did not think there was any chance of it becoming voluntary because the government gives additional money to the prison for inmates who go through that program. I figured money would be the driving force. I was wrong.

The biggest issue I wanted to talk about was the Inmate Placement Program, or IPP. This is where inmates in the prison are sent to different county jails throughout the state to do their time. Mike and I both agree it is a tragedy when good inmates — ones who are involved with programming or school and making positive use of their time — get sent to county jails that just warehouse them.

He let me know that program is not going anywhere soon and the reason is bed space. The Utah Department of Corrections relies on these counties for bed space and the counties rely on the prison to help fund the jails and use the program as a source of revenue for the county. The counties make money by housing inmates for a standard rate and then spending less because they are not required to meet the same standard of opportunities and amenities the prison does.

The worst part is the county jails get the minimum security inmates — the inmates who are trouble-free. In my opinion, it’s a bad marriage. Unfortunately, in this case, it sounds like divorce is not an option.

We talked about so much more, and while I might not have made much of a difference, I would like to report where I think I did. I told Mike that, in my opinion, the uPrep program down in CUCF was the best program the Utah Department of Corrections has. It’s been slowly cut down and almost dismantled. I suggested to Mike he should have a one-on-one conversation with the principal at CUCF, and so he did. Not only did the principal get invited to visit Mike in Draper, but it gave me great satisfaction when I was talking to my old cellie over the phone and he somewhat excitedly reported, “Director Haddon came and visited Gunnison and checked out the education department.”

Mike didn’t make me many promises, but he clearly listened and is doing his own research. I respect that. We have a number of different opinions. He sees things from the top down, while I only have my experiences to go off of. Still, I was encouraged that he took the time to meet with me and even more so after I heard he talked to the principal. At the end of the day, we all want the same thing. We want prisoners to get the help they need so they can get out and become productive members of society rather than reoffend and victimize others.

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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