How Utah’s county jails have helped some state felons rebuild their lives and create a community

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jon Stubbs, a former state inmate who was housed at the Garfield County jail, drives a dump truck for Big J&D Trucking in Payson. He and his brother own the business. Thursday, January 24, 2018.

Panguitch • When Jon Stubbs walked out of the Utah State Prison in the fall of 2016, he planned to find work, repair broken relationships and never get in trouble with the law again.

So far, he’s done it.

“Prison changed me,” Stubbs, now a co-owner of a trucking business, said from the cab of one of his dump trucks. “It saved me.”

But the change didn’t come from his time spent as “one-triple-six-oh-two,” as he was called by officers at the state’s main prison in Draper.

Instead, he said, his transfer 226 miles south to the Garfield County jail — where staffers used his name and showed him he could be a responsible leader — gave him a chance to turn his life around.

And he’s not the only one.

A handful of former prison inmates who spent time at the jail have formed a unique, albeit informal, support network.

In jail, they helped one another complete a substance abuse program and taught one another skills ranging from welding to silk screening. Now, they help one another land jobs and stay out of trouble.

Stubbs, 38, and fellow former inmate Shon Leavitt, 44, say this lifeline would not have been created without the Department of Corrections’ Inmate Placement Program (IPP), which assigns a quarter of Utah’s prison population of about 6,500 inmates to county jails.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Inmate Bryce Talbot, talks about the various programs that have helped him, during his time at the Garfield County Jail in Panguitch, Thursday, December 21, 2017.

It is a decades-old arrangement that isn’t going away, even as the state builds a new prison near the Salt Lake City International Airport. That complex is expected to house 3,600 inmates — 700 fewer than the current prison in Draper can hold, which is a clear sign the state expects to continue, if not expand, its reliance on the 21 participating jails.

Leavitt and Stubbs say the more individualized attention they received in Garfield County was key to their rehabilitation.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Garfield County Sheriff Danny Perkins discusses programs offered to inmates at the jail in Panguitch on Thursday, December 21, 2017.

Garfield County Sheriff Danny Perkins said his jail and others have continued to shift away from warehousing inmates and toward rehabilitating them. “These men are treated like people, you know. We give them respect. We congratulate them when they succeed. … It makes a difference.”

Bryce Talbot, a current state inmate in Garfield County, said: “They treat us like human beings, and, ultimately, that lets us act like human beings.”

Leavitt, who also was housed for a time at the Beaver County jail, said his experience highlights the best of the IPP. But troubling occurrences at some of Utah’s jails call into question how inmates are treated.

Revamping standards

In 2014, Utah jails had the highest death rate in the nation, and, in 2016, two dozen inmates died, some within days of being arrested, from suicide or medical conditions.

Last year, Corrections removed 80 state inmates from the Daggett County jail because an officer was terrorizing prisoners with stun guns and police dogs. He has since been convicted, and the state has yet to send any more inmates to Daggett.

After that assault, the state added new monthly inspections and quarterly reviews to ensure logs and video surveillance at the jails match.

In a move that would reverse years of secrecy, Corrections announced in January that it plans to work with the Utah Sheriffs’ Association to create new, public standards that govern prison practices and, consequently, the jails that contract to hold state inmates.

The standards currently used are confidential for copyright reasons, but they regulate every part of jail operations — from booking to inmate apparel to water temperatures, Perkins said.

Despite the recent controversies, the state continues to rely on county jails and will do so long after the new prison opens in 2020.

For one, it saves the state money.

Estimates for the cost of the new prison project have mushroomed from $550 million to at least $692 million, prompting the state to drop the number of beds from a planned 4,000 to 3,600. That means the state is likely to shift more inmates to its complex in Gunnison, to the jails or both.

The state began sending inmates to jails in the 1980s as a way to reduce overcrowding and separate inmates with gang ties or other issues. The number of jail beds has skyrocketed from 117 in 1993 to 1,640 funded by the state this year.

In 2017, Corrections paid counties more than $27.7 million to house inmates and more than $1.3 million for treatment programs.

It costs the state about $92 a day to house an inmate in the prison. The state pays the jails about $67 a day for those not in substance abuse and sex offender treatment, and nearly $82 per day for those in treatment.

That money helps rural counties by bolstering jail populations and creating stable jobs.

Contracting with the state makes it possible for Garfield County to employ 20 additional full-time employees in a county of 5,000 people, Perkins said.

When Kane County opened its new jail in 2011, the move allowed it to take on more state inmates and added about $1 million to the county’s payroll, Sheriff Tracy Glover said. It basically doubled the staff to about 50 people, allowing the county to hire and keep young, local workers in the community.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kane County Sheriff Tracy Glover talks about programs offered to inmates at the county jail in Kanab on Thursday, December 21, 2017.

To qualify for a transfer out of the prisons in Draper and Gunnison, inmates must be deemed lower-risk, based on the severity of their crimes and their behavior, and pass medical and mental health screening, said Corrections spokeswoman Maria Peterson. County jails can accept or reject individual state inmates.

Corrections also takes into consideration the treatment inmates need.

San Juan and Sanpete counties have sex offender treatment programs identical to the one available at the state prison. Beaver, Davis, Garfield, Kane, Millard and Weber counties each have substance abuse treatment programs.

In addition to treatment, the prison and county jails offer vocational training, religious classes and high school education opportunities. It is in one of these that Stubbs learned the skills needed to start his own trucking business.

More confident than ever before

Stubbs was a welder before going to prison, and he helped start a welding class at the Garfield County jail — where that course and other vocational classes are taught by inmates with a jail officer present. Participants can earn high school or college credit for completing the courses. A few other Utah jails, including Kane County, have similar inmate-led classes.

After his release, Stubbs returned to welding, but then shifted to something he learned about while incarcerated — commercial driving. In May, he partnered with his brother and started Big J&D Trucking. Their fleet now includes three dump trucks, and Stubbs plans to hire a new driver, who is set to be released from prison this month.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jon Stubbs (left) with his brother Dave Stubbs started Big J&D Trucking in Payson. They have three dump trucks in their fleet. Wednesday, January 24, 2018.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Shon Leavitt, a former state inmate who was housed in Garfield County, works as a maintenance supervisor at a Salt Lake City nursing home. On the side, he owns a business painting parking lot stripes and plowing snow. Monday, Feb. 19, 2018.

Leavitt had a harder time finding work. When he was released in 2016, he applied for about 50 jobs and went to 15 interviews before he landed a position driving a parking lot sweeper at night. He got paid $12 an hour.

On the side, Leavitt launched a business called Stripe Utah, where he paints parking lots in the warm months and plows snow in the cold ones. Through the business, he’s been able to provide part-time work to six other former inmates — enough for rent, driver licenses, clothes and phones.

In December, a Salt Lake City nursing home hired Leavitt to be a maintenance supervisor. Like Stubbs, he used his in-jail training to secure that position.

While locked up in Garfield County, Leavitt — whose criminal history includes mostly charges related to theft and burglary — said he took “every” class available.

In addition to welding, the Garfield County jail offers classes in auto glass repair, building trades, culinary arts, graphic design, embroidery and silk screening, among others.

James Bullock, a state inmate in Garfield County who is serving time for a gang-related assault of another prisoner, has a release date just weeks away.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bryce Talbot and James Bullock, state inmates in the Garfield County jail, talk about the programs have helped them succeed while incarcerated in Panguitch, Thursday, December 21, 2017.

He sat alongside Talbot, who is serving time for lying to police and a weapons violation, and jail staff in the break room at the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office while talking to journalists from The Salt Lake Tribune. Later, the inmates and a jail officer led reporters on a tour, including areas where Talbot, 30, demonstrated welding and silk screening.

Inside a trailer separate from the main jail building, inmates threaded sewing machines with different colors for embroidery projects in one room and carefully applied paint to the equipment used for pressing it onto a T-shirt in another.

In a separate shed, Talbot peered through a mask while welding parts for a trailer the inmates had been building for the Sheriff’s Office. Several tools hung in a locked cage on the wall, each with its outline drawn on the space behind it to ensure it’s never misplaced.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Inmate Bryce Talbot does welds a part for a trailer in the shop at the Garfield County jail in Panguitch, Thursday, December 21, 2017.

The “taste of learning” Bullock has had in such classes has inspired him to set new goals after his release. He hopes to go back to school and find work in plumbing or auto mechanics.

“I didn’t think I’d get out and do anything with my life,” Bullock, 27, said, “but today I feel more confident in myself than I ever have before, and that’s due to this [substance abuse] program. It has helped me overcome the struggles. It’s gonna be a lifelong lesson, but I do believe I can get out and do something with myself now.”

Returning to society

The former Garfield County inmates in the small support network often have cellphone numbers for jail staff and therapists so they can keep in touch.

Leavitt grew emotional as he recalled going through a particularly difficult time about six months ago. His friends in the inmate network knew something was wrong and contacted a jail therapist from Garfield County, who drove to Beaver on a Sunday to meet him for lunch.

“They check on us all the time, and they keep track of us all the time,” Leavitt said of jail staff. “They don’t have to do that, you know. We left there, and they don’t have to do that, but it never fails — every couple of weeks, I get a phone call: ‘Just seeing how you’re doing.’ ”

One advantage to jail contracting is the ability to manage inmates in smaller groups, said Peterson, the state Corrections spokeswoman. The Draper prison now has close to 3,300 inmates housed in six areas. The Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison houses more than 1,700 inmates.

“It would be unfair to say the entire prison is ‘tougher‘ [than county jails],” Peterson said, “but no one would argue that a maximum-custody facility has a different feel than a county jail, which houses lower-custody inmates with fewer behavior challenges.”

Leavitt said that there are “good guards” at the prison, but because of the number of inmates they care for and the type of behaviors they deal with, they don’t get to know them the way county staffers do.

Of the prison inmates released to parole, about half return to prison for not following a rule and 13 percent return for a new crime, resulting in about a 63 percent recidivism rate overall, Peterson said.

Leavitt has been to prison twice, he said, and even though he had the tools to change the first time he was released, he wasn’t willing to do it.

Now, he said, he is.

Bonded by ‘true change’

For most felons, Leavitt said, it’s not a good idea to keep in touch with other inmates after getting released from prison because there’s a chance they can drag one another back to a life of crime.

But the Garfield County jail experience and the resulting inmate network are different, he said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Shon Leavitt, a former state inmate who was housed in Garfield County, works as a maintenance supervisor at a Salt Lake City nursing home. On the side, he owns a business painting parking lot stripes and plowing snow. Monday, Feb. 19, 2018.

“I don’t think you can hang out with the same people you’ve always hung out with and be successful,” Leavitt said. “But when you’re in a place that you truly have seen each other change, it can be a lasting friendship.”

Stubbs, Leavitt and other members of the “network” still meet up with Garfield County jail therapist Tad Draper every six weeks or so, when he makes the drive from Panguitch to the Wasatch Front.

Draper got to know them through the county’s substance abuse treatment program and likes to hear how they’re doing, as well as use them to find “felon-friendly” jobs for inmates whose release dates are coming up.

“I can call them up and say, ‘Hey, look, I’ve got this guy coming to your area. Do you have anything available?’ ” Draper said.

The group members also offer one another emotional support.

With Bullock’s release date just weeks away, he feels anxious about having to disassociate himself with family members and friends who have been his support system in the past but are caught up in their own addictions.

Bullock hopes the inmate network can help him with that, as well as finding work, saying, “All I need is a chance.”