New Utah group aims to help inmates’ families keep in touch

Prison » Navigating system often frustrates friends and loved ones.


First Published Aug 23 2013 10:52 am
Last Updated Aug 24 2013 08:43 pm

When a friend or loved one ends up in prison, it’s a grueling experience for all involved as the inmate and his or her supporters try to adjust to the rules, regulations and restrictions of a life separated by bars.

The Utah Prisoner Advocate Network aims to make navigating that new life less complicated and lonely for inmates’ supporters while also advocating for better conditions inside the prison.

"Individually, it is very hard for us to get the support we need," said Molly Prince, a licensed clinical social worker who works with probationers, parolees and their families. "There is a real need to meet more frequently to network and to help each other know who to contact for different issues. There is no organization that really helps us do that."

Such a group once existed — the Prison Information Network — but it shut down in 2007 after operating for a dozen years. Today, Roy Droddy, a former inmate, operates a similar organization — Utah Prison Watch — as a clearinghouse for inmates and their relatives.

But most information of that sort is now filtered through the Utah Department of Corrections. It holds an orientation meeting on the first Tuesday of each month to give families and supporters basic information and also has an online "Friends and Family Handbook." This spring, the department launched an "Online Support Dialogue" forum on its website, where people can ask questions that are answered by a corrections official — often within a day. So far, questions have dealt with such issues as visitation, job placement within the prison, working with parole officers and release procedures.

Spokesman Steve Gehrke said the department also intends for inmates’ family members to use the forum to interact with one another.

One other resource sponsored by the department is a quarterly gathering for inmates’ families, friends and prison volunteers called FOCUS, but some participants say the FOCUS group doesn’t meet often enough and doesn’t allow the supportive exchanges they sometimes need.

"FOCUS has an agenda that is basically set by the Department of Corrections and answers questions, but it doesn’t really provide support," said Prince, who regularly attendsthe group. Recent meetings have offered overviews of the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole and presentations by Adult Probation and Parole, the Utah State Prison warden and the director of institutional operations.

Many people with a newly incarcerated loved one or family member need more basic advice, such as how to set up a telephone account, advocate effectively so the inmate gets services he or she needs and want to share individual stories. And despite requests that the FOCUS group meet more often, there has so far been no change in its schedule.

So Prince and three other organizers are stepping up to fill that need with the Utah Prisoner Advocate Network.

Nearly two dozen people attended the group’s first meeting in July. According to a survey of those attendees, high-priority issues include: improving daily living conditions and access to medical, dental and mental health services for inmates; visitation and telephone access issues; financial challenges associated with having an inmate in prison; policy issues, including possible relocation of the Utah State Prison; and sentencing.

The Utah Prisoner Advocate Network’s next meeting will be Aug. 26 from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Arizona Room at Little America Hotel, 500 S. Main St., Salt Lake City. For information, email upan2013@yahoo.com

brooke@sltrib.com

Twitter: Brooke4Trib

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