A Monday-night focus forum, where those concerned about prison and the penal system could raise questions with prison staff, may have provided little information for concerned relatives of inmates but, for one mother at least, offered a small ray of hope.
The quarterly forum took place in a small room in the Adult Probation & Parole offices just off of Main Street at 1100 South. Among the 28 attendees, not including prison staff, was legislator Mark Wheatley.
One official spoke about DORA, a state-funded program that works with offenders to reduce recidivism. Funding cutbacks, however, meant that inmates lost access to the program.
One attendee asked about why inmates at the Gunnison prison in central Utah were put in lockdown if they did not do the Conquest or Hope programs. Craig Burr, head of programs for the prison, promised to answer that later, but the question was not brought up again in the public forum.
Jeff Wilson, who runs a program called Utah Defendant Offender Workforce Development Task Force, which aims to help ex-offenders get work, shared the success of his program of three ex-probation officers turned employment counselors.
He told the room that "our society is all about second chances." That comment was met with a degree of dissent. His figures, however, suggested some room for optimism. In 2010, 40 percent of the 600 ex-offenders his counselors worked with secured employment in the first 90 days. In the first three quarters of this year, those numbers had jumped to 60 percent of 1,000 ex-offenders getting work within 90 days.
The mothers of the mentally ill inmates featured in the Sept. 27 City Weekly cover story "Lost in the Hole" all attended the forum in search of answers.
Debbie Stone, mother of Uinta 1 inmate Coleman Stonehocker, complained she felt she was her son's only advocate. "We have inmates who are mentally ill who are being horribly abused," she said. "Why isn't administration doing anything?"
She criticized officials who told her that once inmates in Uinta 1 behaved, they could be moved up to less-restrictive management.
Alison Payne, mother of traumatic-brain-injury-victim-and-inmate Cameron Payne, angrily told the room her son had been in prison, mostly in Uinta 1, for two years, and she had only been able to have four visits and five phone calls with him in that time, largely because his behavior had resulted in his privileges being taken away.
In the face of angry comments from the mothers about prison-administration staff they had spoken to on the phone, one official noted, "It was easy to take pot shots at people when they're not here."
The mothers requested a meeting with the prison's management. "There is a serious issue with mentally ill inmates being abused," Stone said. "The prison needs to listen, to address it."
Others, however, who know the prison well, summed up its attitude succinctly, as, in the words of one man, "Nobody tells the prison what to do."