Judicial scholars say that taking a person’s liberty away by putting them behind bars is the punishment. Further physical torment inside a prison, however, is sanctioned by a frightened public. Politicians, of course, prey on that fear every two years, calling for harsher and longer sentences.
When you’re convicted of a felony, you go to prison. In Utah, a first offense will get you zero to five years. The average stay for a first-time offender is about 22 to 23 months. Parole is often violated (67 percent of the time, according to state statistics), sending offenders back again and again at average nine-month stays.
After a period of some 15 years, the Utah Department of Corrections is now seeing change—maybe. Following uninspired tenures by Gary DeLand and O. Lane McCotter, the state prison system may be beginning to let in the fresh sunlight of reform. Directed by Pete Haun, the state corrections system looks like it could be taking a small step away from the dark medieval days when mentally ill inmates were tortured to death.
Of course, the Utah Board of Pardons and Paroles, which is independent of the Corrections Department and determines how long inmates stay in prison, still languishes in a time marked by backward thinking.
And whether Haun is really entering a new phase at the Department of Corrections remains to be seen. His attempt to become progressive—if genuine—is walking a tightrope public relations maneuver. Its “Something for Nothing” program, in which inmates must work at jobs that aren’t yet available and enroll in programs that don’t yet exist in adequate numbers, is either folly or genius (see City Beat: “Somethin’ for Nothin’,” this issue).
Presenting the “Something for Nothing” program, or what they call the “Positive Behavior Reward System,” makes prison officials look tough to the public and legislators, but also makes them look draconian to inmates and their families who know too well the suffering of incarceration.
Taking an individual’s liberty away is serious punishment. Selling their new program as if inmates are away at summer camp is something prison officials can get away with in this law-and-order climate, but it certainly leaves cause for concern. If in the end, Haun and his crew do create more jobs, more and better programs, and treatment for inmates, then the gambit will have paid off.
But the risks of this ploy are great. It has put the majority of inmates, who are well-behaved and want jobs and programs, on edge. We have to wonder if there wasn’t an easier, more straightforward way to accomplish the goal—if indeed the goal is, dare we say it, rehabilitation.