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CORRECTIONS CHIEF, ACLU BUTT HEADS OVER PRISON

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Gary DeLand, Utah's hard-bitten corrections chief, hasn't been himself lately.

A recent rash of lawsuits, pending audits and investigations into his methods of running the state prison have apparently dented the man's armor of confidence."I sure am depressed," the typically self-assured DeLand said Friday. "It can make it so you just don't want to come to work anymore."

But DeLand won't quit over the growing controversy, much to the chagrin of the woman stirring the brew that has caused his depression. Equally as tenacious as her opponent, Michele Parish-Pixler, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, has crusaded for change in state corrections and for ousting DeLand since she assumed her post in February.

In the past 10 months, the ACLU has participated in and filed five lawsuits over prison policy and conditions. Pixler has also publicly aired numerous complaints she has received from inmates. Although she denies direct contact with lawmakers seeking a legislative audit of corrections, it was media reports of Pixler's complaints that spurred the audit request.

The latest salvo was launched Friday when Pixler asked the county judiciary to impanel a grand jury and delve into alleged criminal conduct by prison officials. (Please see story on B3.)

DeLand said he appreciated the watchdog role of the ACLU until Pixler came along.

"I wouldn't want to live in a state where the ACLU ran the prison, although there would be some poetic justice to it," DeLand said. "But they can be an ally to corrections people in getting things done."

However, he has found no such partner in Pixler, the wife of a local Methodist minister. "If you want to know where the bad blood started, it was the contemptuous responses to our friendly overtures," Pixler said, referring to repeated ACLU reminders that lawsuits were coming if changes didn't take place at the prison.

At the center of the problem is the issue of medical care at the prison. Two years ago, the ACLU was ready to sue the state, armed with evidence of a prisoner suffering gangrene and losing a limb, and another diabetic inmate dying because of untimely treatment. A private evaluation showed some changes were in order, and DeLand's guarantees to make those changes stalled ACLU's pending litigation.

But Pixler, who wants to resurrect the lawsuit before Christmas, said not much has happened and she still hears of poor medical care at the prison. "We lost two years trying to work with them and all they did is try to kill time."

DeLand tells a different story. He admits the lack of change, but he shifts responsibility on to the Legislature, saying lawmakers won't give him the money to make improvements. He said he is now negotiating with the University of Utah Medical Center to oversee the prison's medical care facilities.

He boldly invites the ACLU to sue over the matter, hoping it will spring loose the financing for better medical care.

Regarding ACLU allegations of torturing inmates with electric cattle prods, leaving them naked in cold cells or tying down prisoners' hands and feet for days, DeLand said sometimes those disciplinary measures are taken, but he's careful to stay within the law.

Deland, a former corrections law consultant, doggedly researches recent court decisions to see what is acceptable treatment and procedure for inmates. He doesn't accept national corrections standards or accreditations because they aren't recognized by the courts.

DeLands walks close to the legal edge on some issues and that irritates Pixler. "He rides the constitutional line and always presses to see what he can get away with," she said.

Despite her strong belief that prisoners have constitutional rights, Pixler recognizes lack of public support in fighting for inmate rights. She acknowledges that sympathy toward convicted criminals isn't a politically popular stand and that DeLand's image of a tough, no-nonsense enforcer is attractive to the public and state government.

Gov. Norm Bangerter, who recently challenged lawmakers with his own independent audit of DeLand, declaring it would turn up no wrongdoing, stands behind DeLand, noting a spotless record of no prison riots, no successful escapes and no official misconduct during DeLand's tenure.

"It (the current controversy) comes down to philosophical differences with the ACLU," said Bangerter's chief of staff Bud Scruggs. "He believes in punishing prisoners and they (ACLU) believe in pampering them."

Pixler bemoans that type of popular "machoism," saying it ignores the social cost of punishing versus reforming criminals. "Think of the costs to society when they (inmates) still have substance abuse problems, no money and then are sent back into society" she said.

Of late, DeLand hasn't reveled in his tough-guy image, since it has backfired on his department and staff. "We are treated by a narrow segment of people as having a malignant heart and damn it, it isn't true. If you screw around with inmates you're asking for trouble and it makes life miserable" for inmates and prison officials alike.

Prisoners at the Point of the Mountain are aware of the controversy brewing over corrections, DeLand said, and many believe he won't be around much longer. But DeLand plans to prove them wrong. "I intend to be here for another two or three years," he said, even with the ACLU breathing down his back.