HOPE for Utah Prisons | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

HOPE for Utah Prisons 

Utah prison inmates police each other in drug-rehab program.

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In June 2009, a fight broke out in Gunnison’s Central Utah Correctional Facility between two inmates. The brutal encounter, sources say, went on for nearly 10 minutes, spreading out across a dormitory floor and finishing with the victim crumpled against a lower bunk bed as the aggressor kicked him mercilessly until help arrived.

Sources say the victim had “snitched” on the aggressor.

A not-so-unusual occurrence in prison, right?

Perhaps, but this assault didn’t just take place in prison. It happened in a “therapeutic community,” the drug-rehab program called HOPE (Helping Offenders Parole Effectively). The aggressor in the fight allegedly was a “positive peer leader” in the program, and his victim was a newcomer still learning the rules.

HOPE offers inmates the chance to turn their lives around if they follow program rules. The rules can be as mundane as washing one’s hands and making beds to the more consequential ones of failing to report inmates who don’t follow rules. In common prison lingo, inmates are required to snitch on one another, every day.

Ironically, the inmate who received the 10-minute beating last June was assaulted, sources say, because he followed HOPE rules and snitched.

Since the community is expected to police itself, when things go wrong, they do so with dire results. Take one instance, when the HOPE community — along with prison staff and cameras — failed to notice when one inmate, Joe Manuel Alires, took his life.

Utah Prison Inmates Snitch at Their Own Risk

The HOPE program faces unique challenges. First and foremost, HOPE is a treatment community, a criminal fraternity that struggles to exist within a prison that houses as many as 1,500 offenders, from sexual predators to gang-bangers to murderers. The prison culture is violently hostile toward snitching. It’s also a culture of offenders who know how to game a system — even one as well intentioned as the HOPE program.

Defenders of HOPE view it as a life-changing experience and possibly one of the most sophisticated drug-treatment programs in Utah’s prison system. It also operates with little accountability, as the Utah Department of Corrections has not evaluated the effectiveness of the program in its 10-year existence beyond anecdotal successes.

In the home of Roy Alires, father of the late inmate Joe Alires, two portraits contrast each other. In one photo framed on a wall, Joe, wearing diapers, is riding a toy bike and grinning ear to ear. On top of the TV, another photo shows Joe before his death: 34 years old; shaved head; sporting a mustache, a gold cross necklace and a weary look in his eyes. When asked about the HOPE program, Roy Alires doesn’t hesitate in his estimation of the program.

“There’s no hope down there,” he says.

God is Truthful
Probably the last place a black, Orthodox Muslim from South Chicago might expect to find himself is the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison. But for 39-year-old Larry Agee, CUCF has been home for the past two years and will be for at least five more while he finishes an armed-robbery sentence for holding up a North Salt Lake dope house in 1999.

At 6 feet 9 inches tall and 270 pounds, Agee doesn’t worry too much about watching his back in prison. Like many inmates, Agee’s arms are inked with tattoos: On one forearm, neat Arabic script reads, “God is merciful and just”; the other forearm bears the characters for “God is truthful.” But unlike many inmates, Agee spends much of his time learning about the system that’s claimed the past decade of his life. He knows Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act inside and out and has used it to spar with prison administration on more than one occasion.

“The HOPE program, for which I spent 13 months in, is the standing symbol for an intense pressure that is doing inmates more harm than good,” Agee writes in an August 2009 letter to City Weekly. “At the HOPE program, inmates are being assaulted by other inmates, they’re attempting and succeeding at taking their own lives and others are learning how to become better predators and manipulators, all because of the HOPE program’s irresponsible, thoughtless and downright dangerous approach to drug rehab.”

Agee was aware of the suicide of Joe Alires, since Agee promoted Alires to the level of junior mentor the day before Alires took his life on Aug. 4, 2009.

In the HOPE program, inmates rely on a small clinical staff and their fellow inmates to take care of them, and while Agee says no one really could have known Alires would take his life that day, he says there were signs he was depressed.

“We’re in a program with lettered psychologists and psychiatrists, section coordinators—all these people see these things, but the staff is just so out of touch,” Agee says. “You could have asked any of the inmates, and they would have told you, ‘Yeah, the dude was pretty morose.’” Alires was progressing in the program, but he was also allegedly distraught over personal issues relating to his family in Salt Lake City, Agee says. On the day Alires took his life, a group of roughly 20 inmates were seated in a HOPE class looking out a window into a small recreation yard. The yard was empty except for Alires. When the instructor of the course called for “open library,” the inmates rose from their chairs and began milling through carts for books to read. During this time when inmates were distracted, Agee says, Alires lifted the tarp covering a large piece of exercise equipment, crawled underneath and hanged himself from the bars of the machine.

Not all take Alires’ route out of HOPE; many simply play the game. With the HOPE program investing trust and even power into the hands of inmates who advance in the program, Agee describes it operating like a political machine behind bars, where senior mentors allegedly bring their friends and fellow gang members up for promotion while dispensing punishments to inmates they don´t like.

The HOPE program elite play politics while the few available staff disengage, expecting the community to police itself, Agee says. He alleges that is how one inmate came to be beaten bloody for nearly 10 minutes before help arrived.

“They [the staff] were expecting someone to push the button,” Agee says. “They expect inmates to be on cruise control.”

Mind Your P.B.L.s
“This is the best treatment freedom can buy,” says Clark Holladay, HOPE program director based out of Gunnison. “Because that’s what you pay for it with.” With decades of experience in counseling and social work, Holladay is a veteran of the drug-treatment industry, having previously worked for outpatient drug rehab facilities like LDS Hospital’s Dayspring program. Holladay is a man with the calm, soft-spoken demeanor of a lifelong therapist. He’s also one who appreciates the opportunity that HOPE offers inmates. Holladay recalls his past rehab experience, assisting with Corrections’ Adult Probations and Parole, when he felt as if he were merely “documenting noncompliance.”

“We were pariahs,” Lane Porter says, “We were seen as cops,” adding that members of his section faced added security risks for their participation in the program.

But with in-prison treatment, Holladay says, there is a great opportunity to reach addicts using institutional rules to coax participation. Using the program’s “stick” of enforcement, the prison can send inmates who refuse to participate in HOPE to solitary confinement in CUCF’s discipline block for as long as four months.

But that’s not to say there isn’t also a carrot involved, as well: HOPE inmates usually have an edge in getting transfered to desirable prison programs, like the horse-gentling program that allow inmates the chance to work outdoors. HOPE graduates also generally win points with the Board of Pardons that may shave a few months off their sentences. HOPE peer leaders enjoy the benefits of luxury items like recreational movies, video games and the chance to buy items such as sneakers from mail-order catalogs.

For Holladay, HOPE is “still a prison, but not like any prison you’ve ever seen before.”

The program is designed to correct criminal thinking. As a result, a common punishment inmates face for not owning up to a mistake is called an “image-breaker,” similar to a one-man skit. It could mean an inmate would have to sing “The Teapot Song” (“I’m a little teapot”) in front of their fellow HOPEsters, sizzle like bacon, or pretend to be a wild orangutan for 30 seconds.

“It’s kind of a way for the guys to break down their con-code mentality, because they can be silly with each other and the community claps for them and cheers them on,” Holladay says.

The punishments result from infractions of HOPE rules, which go well beyond regular institutional rules. Those rules include everything from being punctual to not using restricted words, or PBLs, which stand for “punk,” “bitch” and “lame.”

For inmates in the program, there is a ladder of leadership roles. The goal is to progress up the rungs, from crew member to crew boss to junior mentor and, perhaps, a paid senior mentor.

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.”

Hopefully Helping
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.

Quiet Life

A lot of things in Lane Porter’s life were, at one time, just noise. In Porter’s pre-HOPE existence, he was an ambitious dish-satellite salesman in his 20s. He had a talent for sales and a taste for cocaine that helped him rack up five felonies for theft, burglary and possession charges in 2003 and that landed him a three-year stint at CUCF. He joined the HOPE program in 2004.

“It changed my life, and I can say that without reservation,” Porter says. While HOPE was Porter’s first experience in a therapeutic community, it would not be his last, as he now is a full-time counselor for the First Step House, a Salt Lake City halfway house and communitytreatment center.

Porter decided when he left HOPE and the prison in 2007, he would continue to repay his debt to society. “I made a decision that I was going to use the rest of my life making up for that,” he says. Then, with a laugh, he adds, “It’s not like I’m living like an ascetic. I freakin’ love my job and can’t believe I get paid every day to do this!” HOPE clicked for Porter, no matter how much the noise of his addiction tried to block it out. “HOPE gave me a chance to listen to my internal voice, to listen to who I really was.”

For Porter, it took prison to find peace of mind, but it wasn’t just HOPE.

It was his particular community. During the time Porter was inside, there were five dorms that housed 48 inmates each in HOPE. Porter says, if the general prison population looked down upon HOPEsters as snitches, his section in particular was more poorly regarded by the other four HOPE dorms for snitching.

“We were pariahs,” Porter says, “We were seen as cops,” adding that members of his section faced added security risks for their participation in the program. “Which was fine with me. I mean, if the whole prison had been like [HOPE], it would have been easier. It’s just hard to get buy-in to the program with the prisoners of Elm and Birch [non-HOPE cell blocks] watching.”

Porter’s dorm excelled in the program through leadership and clever techniques. In some situations, the senior mentors of his group would promote inmates who were struggling in the program to leadership positions just to get them invested in the program.

“They would often become the strongest members of the community,” Porter says. While graduating from HOPE may have given Porter a different perspective than an inmate like Agee, Porter shares similar concerns and recalls similar stories of favoritism and abuse of privileges by senior mentors from other HOPE pods, a flaw that could be remedied by more oversight.

“Because it’s an internally run program, there was a feeling that [Corrections] could apply minimal resources,” Porter says. “It does need more resources. It does need more trained, professional counselors.” Even with the recent hires, there is still only one actual substance-abuse professional for every 72 inmates in HOPE.

“I think [better funding] would do wonders for the program,” he says. “I really do.”

Winston Churchill once said democracy was the worst kind of government, except for all of the other kinds. The same might be said for therapeutic communities like HOPE. These systems depend on the people who comprise it. Communities can heal when they have the right mix of leaders, instead of manipulators, and the right separation of powers, with staff not spread too thin.

Agee wishes the program would screen mentors better and emphasize life-skills classes to help inmates when they get out of prison, as opposed to skits and feel-good activities like singing doowop.

But even for Agee, who has seen fellow inmates make a mockery of the program’s goal of a “positive peer culture” with bloody results, there’s no denying that the program offered moments of inspiration. Two major assignments, in particular, bring out the best in even the worst offenders: an essay at the beginning of their HOPE tenure on how their drug habits impacted their lives, and another at the end of treatment on how their drug habits impacted others.

For Agee, a former senior mentor who got to the top and “sold the bullshit, sold the party line and sold the program” for HOPE, there was no denying the effect of this last assignment.

“You got this dynamic of these guys standing up and reading their paper in front of their crews. Eighty percent of these people break down in tears,” Agee says. “There’s power in that. It really makes you reflect.”

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