Prison officials backed off a plan to do away with a group that met four times a year to work through policy issues with advocacy groups and inmates' families after hearing strong support Monday to keep the meetings going.
London Stromberg, deputy director of operations, told about a dozen people who turned out for FOCUS' quarterly meeting that the department felt the group, launched about six years ago to foster dialogue with such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union, had run its course and would be replaced with a "better system" of getting information to inmates' supporters.
That includes publicizing contact telephone numbers friends and family can call to discuss specific issues and relying more on social media to communicate information including a new Facebook page, a Twitter account and an online chat forum on the department's website.
Stromberg said those options would give inmates' supporters more information more frequently so "you don't have to wait."
Over the past year, attendees at the FOCUS meeting had expressed frustration with its infrequent schedule; corrections staff, in turn, continually had to rebuff questions that dealt with individual inmates' situations.
But Monday, several attendees said despite those limitations, the FOCUS group provides a critical, "hands-on" opportunity for inmates' supporters to meet and interact with corrections' staff.
"To abolish this, even temporarily, is a setback to the entire process," said Roy Droddy, who runs an advocacy group for inmates called Prison Watch International.
Droddy and others praised corrections for adding more options for people to get information while urging the department to leave the group intact.
Molly Prince, a licensed clinical social worker who works with probationers, parolees and their families, told Stromberg that FOCUS brought a "human piece" and "level of comfort" to dealing with the prison system "that I am going to beg you" to not get rid off.
Prince and several others recently formed a new support group the Utah Prisoner Advocate Network (UPAN), which meets monthly to provide a forum for friends and family to speak more freely about individual cases and how to navigate the prison system. It has already drawn interest from more than 120 people.
Corrections spokesman Steve Gehrke said the department had discussed doing away with FOCUS for some time because staff felt it had become "not productive" in large part because of attendees' desire to discuss specific situations.
"I think that UPAN is playing that role," he said. "It's a great opportunity for them to come together and discuss issues among themselves."
Stromberg, who was attending his first FOCUS meeting Monday, said corrections officials would be willing to attend UPAN's meetings as guest presenters, but also relented and agreed to keep the corrections' group going.
• The Utah Prisoner Advocate Network support group for friends and family of inmates will meet Oct. 14 at 6:30 p.m. at the Sandy Library, 10100 Petunia Way. A former member of the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole will share tips on how inmates and their supporters can best advocate during parole hearings. For more information, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• FOCUS, a quarterly meeting sponsored by the Utah Department of Corrections, will meet again on Jan. 6 and will discuss the new visitation policy adopted this summer. FOCUS meets at 6 p.m. in a conference room at the Salt Lake Adult Probation and Parole Office, 36 W. Fremont Ave. Making prison visits more kid-friendly
A new initiative by the Utah Department of Corrections aims to make visiting a parent or relative at prison less scary for children.
The department has placed copies of Rebecca Myers' book, "Someone I Know Lives in Prison," in visiting wait rooms and also plans to stock the rooms with safe children's toys.
Myers is a veteran early-childhood educator who wrote the book after visiting an incarcerated family member and noticing many young children there to see their own relatives. She shared a draft of the book with George A. Lombardi, director of the Missouri Department of Corrections, who gave it a thumbs up and began spreading the word about it.
"I simply believe it helps fill the void of families and children who visit our incarcerees," Lombardi said in a July 2013 letter about the book sent to colleagues.