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Graduating from the 12-to-18 month program requires completing four months of intensive classes designed to correct criminal thinking. Inmates memorize 25 HOPE values and learn about 23 character defects, write 23 essay assignments, and memorize the HOPE song about a lump of coal becoming a diamond.
“They put effort into memorizing those and living those,” Holladay says. “Some people may just play the game and do the program and their assignments, [but] they got out of it what they put into it.”
For Agee, it was a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington moment when he came to understand the political maneuverings of HOPE. Upon his promotion to senior mentor, Agee says, “A lot of manipulating happens with people who get moved up. That’s when the horse-trading begins and the program gets a whole different feel.”
Agee remembers entering the senior-mentoring workroom and finding some senior mentors trading pills.
“They [other mentors] were all like, ‘This is all a fucking joke, we’ve reached a level where we can do what we want,’” Agee says. He also claims that clinical staff relied too heavily on senior mentors to know what was going on in the different pods of the HOPE program.
That was especially true when it came to HOPE discipline. Minor disagreements in the HOPE program are settled by going to the “table,” a scenario in which a senior mentor referees two inmates talking over a grievance. If the argument gets too heated, the discussion is halted and goes to an “encounter” before the whole HOPE pod, including senior mentors and section staff.
Agee says this is where the staff members have to rely on senior mentors for background on the dispute, which could be spun by the mentors.
“It depends on your plan,” Agee says.
“Who you want to be, the protagonist and the antagonist, the shit-starter and the victim. Because, ultimately, the staff only knows what the senior mentors are gonna tell them.” In a strange reversal of justice, it’s as if offenders play the part of judge and jury, rigging their own “court” against those they don’t like.
Holladay, who would not comment on specific incidents at the prison, admitted such things are possible but says the risk for senior mentors is that they could lose their privileges. “It’s a temporary trust,” Holladay says. “We tell senior mentors they have to earn their wings every day.” Senior mentors can themselves be brought to a “tribunal,” which is a hearing with senior mentors from surrounding dorms acting as judges.
Agee is frank about the fact that he lost his position as a senior mentor for medication abuse in late June 2009. Agee was caught “cheeking” medication, or saving pills from the pill line in his mouth and spitting them out later. Agee defends the act, saying he preferred to take the pain pills throughout the day rather than all at once. While no evidence was provided to allege Agee was trading the pills with other inmates, the cheeking of the medication was enough to cost him his senior status.
Like a scandalized politician, Agee bowed out of the program and moved to a new housing section of the prison. Agee is proof that even senior mentors can’t escape consequences for violating the rules, but in his case, his infractions were caught only by cameras, not snitched on by fellow HOPEsters.
Agee also recalls a tribunal that ousted three senior mentors of a pod after they failed to stop the 10-minute brawl. In that fight, Agee says two of the senior mentors who should have stopped the fight first were gang members whose allegiance to the con-code came before the HOPE rules against violence.
Sources close to the program and former inmates vouch for the intense pressure the HOPE program places on participants. Inmate X, who requested anonymity for his protection, says that while HOPE wasn’t necessarily any more dangerous than living in other parts of the prison, he felt the program was seriously understaffed.
Holladay mentioned the staffing challenge himself. For inmates, HOPE is a 24/7 community, he said, but the staff only work 40 hours a week.
Inmate X also recalls participants being petty in making calls on inmate infractions. Inmate X said he was only able to graduate from the program (after 16 months) by gauging which answers and assignments received the least criticism from fellow inmates and staff and then emulating those responses. X says HOPE has soured him on any prison drug-treatment program. Ultimately, he says, addicts are too manipulative to be given so much power over one another in an unsupervised environment.
“You can’t put addicts in charge of other addicts,” X says. “Because they think they know everything.”
For a program whose acronym stands for Helping Offenders Parole Effectively, the Utah Department of Corrections has no empirical proof that it helps offenders do that. When asked for statistics on inmate recidivism—rates with which inmates who graduated HOPE return to prison after release—Corrections spokesman Steve Gehrke could only offer studies of similar programs in other states. Those studies show recidivism rates reduced by 5 to 7 percent. Also, when City Weekly submitted follow-up questions about the program to Corrections Director Tom Patterson, he refused to comment.
While no studies are available for Utah’s HOPE program, a recidivism study was done in 2004 on the Draper prison’s therapeutic community program Con-Quest, which houses about 400 inmates. That study compared a group of Con-Quest graduates against nonprogram parolees and found that 18 months after their release, only 28 percent of program graduates were re-arrested, compared to 65 percent of the control group. For drug-related offenses, only 12 percent of program graduates were re-incarcerated compared to 25 percent of the control group.
Comparing Con-Quest to HOPE is difficult, however, since Con-Quest is removed from the prison’s general population. HOPE participants join the rest of the prison population daily for job details and other courses, a factor former HOPEsters claim adds to the stress of the program, as HOPE inmates deal with the “snitch” reputation throughout the prison.HOPE participants join the rest of the prison population daily for job details and other courses, a factor former HOPEsters claim adds to the stress of the program, as HOPE inmates deal with the “snitch” reputation throughout the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison.
Even without evaluating HOPE, the prison has expanded the program from 244 to 288 inmates and from two to four therapists since 2008.
For Agee, HOPE sacrifices safe and effective treatment for the sake of saving a buck—the real reason he believes the program has expanded. After all, the HOPE program is cost effective, especially compared to other housing options.