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SALT LAKE CITY — Tears were shed, hugs freely given and electric candles flickered at the People Not Prisons vigil on Tuesday night.
A mother said her son had not received proper medical attention since he was stabbed in prison. Another mother said her daughter was imprisoned during her college years for using methamphetamine; today, this still imprisoned girl has grandchildren. And one daughter said her father had lost 10 pounds in his first week in prison.
And that was only the beginning. The stories followed at a vigil held Tuesday night at the Utah Capitol by the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, the Disability Law Center and the Utah Prisoner Advocate Network.
A man said his best friend was killed by another inmate on the day he was due to be released. A formerly incarcerated woman said she had been free for a year and a half, held a job the whole time, but was homeless because she could not pass a background check. A woman said her parole officer showed compassion during her struggle with drug addiction, but her currently imprisoned boyfriend was not so lucky.
About 40 local leaders, media and community members with incarcerated loved ones came together to share their experiences, provide support and raise concerns about the treatment of Utah inmates, especially in light of the recent relocation of the old Draper Jail to the new $1 billion1.3 million square foot facility in Salt Lake City located on 170 acres north of I-80.
The new prison has more counselors, larger classes and shorter waiting lists for inmates who need to take life skills or counseling classes. It also has a family history library, seven nondenominational chapels, music rooms, computer labs, gymnasiums, hobby classes, and even hair salons. This is in addition to programs that teach inmates skills they can use to get jobs once released, such as welding, auto mechanics and culinary arts.
Horizonte School also has a program at the prison to help inmates obtain a GED. And the new prison complex has two infirmaries with more than triple the number of beds the Draper facility had and rooms for dental procedures with more modern equipment.
But the new facility is understaffed, prison officials noted. And in August, the inmate prescription management program faced a backlog of thousands.
Prison officials released a statement on Tuesday saying that “Incarcerated care is a top priority and it is encouraging to see the Utah community coming together to support our efforts to help incarcerated individuals succeed, including in the administration of appropriate health care services.”
They noted the “severity of the crisis encountered over the past few weeks in the transition to a new medical records system”.
“Each day we continue to see a return to more normal operations and we are optimistic that we will continue to see operations improve,” the statement said.
Many of the concerns voiced on Tuesday night centered on medical issues, such as prisoners not being given the drugs needed to control conditions such as diabetes or heart disease. Others said requests for care from family members were ignored or insufficiently addressed. And many have pointed to the lack of humanity with which they feel their loved ones have been treated.
Community leaders also spoke, including Pastor Shawn Clay of New Beginnings Ministries, Chris Moon of the Utah Prisoner Advocate Network and Niki Venugopal of the ACLU of Utah.
Rae Duckworth, operational chair of the Black Lives Matter Utah chapter, said that in a state that promotes family, love and progress, there should be more care for the homeless and the incarcerated.
“The system isn’t broken. The system is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do,” she said. “He’s chasing us exactly like he’s supposed to.”
Money drives the system, she said, and urged everyone listening to call their lawmakers to say they no longer want tax money going to jail.
“The system was designed to abuse your loved ones,” she said.
And if anyone wants to take action – making phone calls, writing emails, protesting – she’s happy to help.
“My name is Rae and I’m down,” she said. “Let’s pick a place and do it.”