Religious Rights of Inmates in Utah

Inmates in Utah lose many of their freedoms temporarily while they serve their time behind bars, yet many religious rights of inmates continue to be upheld throughout their incarceration.

Freedom of religion

Religious Rights

Photo by: John Flannery

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; ( . . . ).” It is the right of every person on American soil to practice the religion of their choosing. Although being incarcerated means the temporary loss of many rights, inmates are still given their religious freedom as long as the practice of their religion does not put others in danger.

UDC Handbook

The Utah Department of Corrections Inmate Orientation Handbook states: “Inmates in the Utah State Prison will be allowed access to religious services, except when the inmate’s behavior poses a safety threat to the religious counselor or others attending the religious service.” The handbook also explains that depending on the inmate’s security level, they “may attend scheduled religious services in the chapel” and “inmates will also have access to religious writings unless such writings advocate actions that could present a clear and present danger to the security of the institution.”

Outward expressions of devotion

With the vast range of religions out there, there are many that require outward expressions of devotion beyond weekly services and reading material. Sometimes, these outward expressions conflict with what is typically permissible in prison. Most inmates are required to dress a certain way, have set schedules, and are given the same diet as the rest of the prison population. Fortunately, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) protects many inmates from boundaries that would violate their religious rights.

Religious allowances for inmates

Some of the religious allowances for inmates include:

• Necklaces and jewelry- Many prison systems do not allow jewelry of any kind and even limit what visitors are allowed to wear into the facilities. Regarding religious jewelry for inmates, the UDC notes “medallions or ornaments may be worn based on the inmate’s classification and housing assignments. Inmates may obtain an item by requesting it through one of the chaplains.”

• Religious food restrictions- Some religions have food restrictions that prohibit practicing members from partaking of certain items. Jewish inmates and those practicing Islam are forbidden from eating foods that are not kosher such as pork. Hindu inmates don’t eat beef products as the cow is worshipped in their religion. Utah Department of Corrections offers meals to inmates that coincide with their religious food restrictions.

• Rugs and clothing- Although inmates are required to wear prison approved clothing and use only approved bedding, items such as Prayer Rugs or Kippahs and Yakamas are often available for purchase through prison commissary.
• Long hair- Inmates in the prison system are expected to keep their grooming and appearance clean which in some states involves male inmates having short haircuts. Utah prisons do not have a history of enforcing length restrictions on hair and offer added reassurance for those such as Native Americans, whose long locks are of religious value. Utah Code 64-13-40 (6) states “The department may not require a native American inmate to cut the inmate’s hair if it conflicts with the inmate’s traditional native American religious beliefs.

• Beards- in 2015, a Muslim inmate by the name of Gregory Holt, or Abdul Muhammad, went before the Supreme Court to fight an Arkansas prison law preventing him and others practicing Islam the right of growing a half inch beard in accordance with their religion. The Arkansas facility argued that a half inch beard could allow an inmate to transport contraband into or around the prison. According to the United States Department of Justice, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Holt and “refused to accept that the beard ban was necessary to prevent smuggling of contraband, in light of the fact that hiding places such as hair longer than ¼ inch, moustaches, and clothing were already available.”

Know your religious rights

Inmates are encouraged to discuss their religious rights as soon as possible after incarceration to avoid the unnecessary limits of their freedom of religious practice. For more information, contact the Utah Department of Corrections.

Changes Finally in Store for Utah’s Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP)

After years of the supply for therapy not matching the demand, changes are finally in store for Utah’s sex offender treatment program (SOTP).

One case of many


Photo by: Craig Sunter

Speaking with the family of an inmate housed at Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison Utah, their family member has served four years of a one to 15 year sentence for a second degree, sexual related crime. In four years since he was incarcerated, the inmate has waited to attend the Sex Offender Treatment Program without actually making it onto the waiting list. The inmate went before a parole board and was denied immediately after it was determined he had not finished (or even started) the treatment for sex offenders. Months after his parole hearing, the inmate’s name was finally added to the waiting list for the Sex Offender Treatment Program, with therapy expected to begin in 18 long months. After continuing to wait and eventually completing the treatment program, this particular inmate will have served more than half his maximum sentence before there is even a chance at him becoming eligible for parole. Sadly, this is not an uncommon fate among sex offenders currently lost in the prison population.

Waiting for help

According to the Utah Department of Corrections, “Nearly one-third of the inmates in Utah’s prison system are serving time for a sexual offense.” Many of the inmates who are incarcerated for sexual related offenses have been so for years without any behavioral therapy to aid them in their rehabilitation. Utah has a sex offender treatment program in place, however it has recently been determined that there were serious failings in the system, including the way it was being managed, operated, and funded. After decades of using a flawed system, changes are finally on the horizon.

No funding

One of the first problems to note with the current Sex Offender Treatment Program is the lack of funding. The amount of inmates needing treatment for sexual crimes has grown rapidly over the last twenty years without the funding increasing at all during this time. Not only has funding remained stagnant for the sex offender treatment program, a special housing facility meant to house sex offenders while they receive treatment was closed two years ago when the state was unable, or unwilling, to staff it. The sex offender treatment program was then moved to the Utah State Prison in Draper to be poorly managed while those needing treatment are scattered at other facilities around the state to await treatment. The cost of housing those inmates is great in comparison to the cost of treating them.

“Fundamental flaws”

Utah Department of Corrections recently discovered through a performance audit of the Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP) that there were “fundamental flaws in the way the SOTP was operating”. The program was outdated, the therapists were underpaid or underqualified, and the sex offenders receiving treatment were receiving a standard blanket therapy and not one tailored to their specific needs. Fortunately, the old director of the Sex Offender Treatment Program has been reassigned and a new director more suited for the job is eager to make changes.

Changes for sex offender treatment program (SOTP)

According to an article posted by the UDC, several changes are set to take place in the Sex Offender Treatment Program. They plan to use “an evidence-based program using cognitive-behavioral approached combined with a relapse prevention approach.” This new approach will help those who are high risk, low risk, disabled, as well as provide help following completion of treatment. They also stated that “other SOTP changes include:

• Conducting rigorous, real-time, and continuous risk assessments of the participants to ensure that the program is working effectively, which include following industry guidelines.
• New processes/criteria for entering, suspending and removing from treatment including removing punitive measures for treatment termination.
• Increased communication with the Board of Pardons and Parole and improved processes to reduce therapists’ administrative tasks for reports so they can focus on treating offenders.
• Introducing on-site aftercare services for offenders to access ongoing counseling, psychotherapy, and meetings in a modified Therapeutic Community setting.
• Implementing a strategic plan with goals, objectives, performance measures and evaluations for the SOTP.
• Adjusting position titles and roles to match the industry standards, treatment team’s duties and responsibilities.
• Working with the Department of Human Resource Management to determine competitive pay for psychologists. “

For those currently facing time for a sexual related crime, there is hope for proper and prompt treatment in the future. Those who are already incarcerated should see the effects of these changes shortly.

Halfway House Fugitives in Utah

There is a growing concern in Utah over multiple fugitives who have walked away from a halfway house in Salt Lake City Utah and violently reoffended within the last several months.

Roaming the streets

Photo by: Thomas Leuthard

Photo by: Thomas Leuthard

Between September 2015 and now, there have been three known violent fugitives from a halfway house in Salt Lake City called Fortitude Treatment Center. All three of these fugitives were in the headlines after behaving aggressively towards the public. One took the life of a Unified Police Department officer in January.

Loss of an officer

44 year old Officer Douglas Barney was shot and killed last month while pursuing a fugitive involved in a hit and run accident. Officer Barney received a fatal gunshot to the head while another officer was shot multiple times but miraculously survived. 31 year Old Cory Lee Henderson, the man that killed Officer Barney, disappeared from the Fortitude Treatment Center in Salt Lake City. Henderson had been missing from the halfway house for less than a month when he took the life of Officer Barney, father of three and cancer survivor.

More AWOL parolees

Photo by: Seniju

Photo by: Seniju

Henderson’s desertion of the treatment center came less than four months after another fugitive, Robert Richard Berger, left the Fortitude Treatment Center and burglarized and violently attacked and stabbed a Salt Lake City woman in her home before he was shot and killed. From the same halfway house as Henderson and Berger came yet one more violent reoffender, 29 year old Tommy Burnham, who is currently on the run for ramming a police car after a high speed chase that stretched through multiple cities in the Salt Lake Valley.

Late night search

These three reoffenders all had one thing in common: they all left the Fortitude Treatment Center and never returned. Following the most recent fugitive reoffender incident, an extensive early morning search was done of the halfway house. Of the over 100 offenders searched, the AP&P discovered 18 were either testing positive for drugs or violating their parole. There was also an community search by the AP&P that turned up nearly a dozen offenders who were also fugitives from the Fortitude Treatment Center. Most of these fugitives were returned to prison.

Halfway houses in Utah

Photo by: Craig Sunter

Photo by: Craig Sunter

The Utah Department of Corrections has five halfway houses known as community correctional centers throughout the northern half of Utah; three of these centers are for men and two for women. These halfway houses are to help offenders transition to life on the other side of the bars. According to the UDC website, “ These halfway houses are designed to help offenders who may not have a place to go when they leave prison, need additional treatment as they transition back into the community or are struggling and at risk of returning to jail or prison.” Regarding those who are struggling, the website also states that at least two of these centers, the Atherton Community Treatment Center for Women and the Fortitude Treatment Center for men, are specifically for offenders who have already violated their probation or parole.

Good Intentions

Although the UDC claims that in the Fortitude Treatment Center, “the offender is subject to tighter restrictions” and “agents actively monitor an offender”, there are apparently complications with this halfway house which holds over 300 offenders, nearly double the capacity of any other halfway house in Utah. While all these community correctional centers in Utah are wonderful for transitioning when run correctly, they are dangerous to the community when offenders slip through the cracks. Offenders, especially those prone to reoffend, should be monitored more cautiously and reported immediately if unable to locate. Unfortunately, glitches with halfway houses such as the Fortitude could potentially cause issues down the road such as closures for other halfway houses that currently run efficiently. This would be devastating for those offenders who would have benefited from the transitioning centers.