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3 lawmakers finding Corrections more responsive and less arrogant

This time last year, Rep. David Zolman's mailbox was crammed with letters, many anonymous, most from the same address: P.O. Box 250, Draper - the Utah State Prison.

Rep. Katherine Bryson's phone rang constantly with tips from disgruntled Corrections workers.Their colleague, Rep. Patrice Arent, got a tongue lashing in a public budget hearing from former Corrections executive director O. Lane McCotter.

What a difference a year makes.

As Corrections heads into legislative budget hearings this week, the department has opened its gates to Zolman, who pops in at the Point of the Mountain unannounced.

Bryson, still a critic, says she at least gets answers to her questions.

And Arent, once dismissed as a "gullible freshman," said the arrogance in Corrections vanished with its retired director.

"Not all is right out there," said Arent, who along with Zolman and Bryson sit on the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Corrections budget. "But at least they no longer feel the need to defend everything they do."

It was during the budget-building process last year that the trio of freshmen joined to force accountability on a defiant department bristling under scrutiny by the media and civil libertarians.

By all accounts, their actions resulted in nothing less than a sea change within the department.

"There was such an atmosphere of arrogance," said Zolman, who took up his surprise visits after he was left cooling his heels for hours when he showed up unannounced at the prison's medical clinic last year.

He was allowed in only after McCotter showed up personally to escort him - and, Zolman believes, to make sure he didn't see anything he wasn't supposed to.

"The intimidation factor was unbelievable," he said.

Contrast that to this year when Zolman again was detained at the prison gates, apparently out of a misunderstanding. The department's new executive director, Pete Haun, "called me up and personally apologized. It hasn't happened since."

"There still are problems out there, and our concern about Corrections is not diminished," said Zolman, who marvels at how much his prison-related mail has dropped off.

"But I have to say I'm very pleased with the problem-solving attitude of the new administration."

While Zolman is enthusiastic about Haun's plan to move away from new prison construction and emphasize rehabilitation, Bryson is less so. Still, she "appreciates the department's candor and openness."

"At least they're not stamping `protected' on everything," she said.

McCotter resigned last spring and Haun was appointed. Bryson, while wary of the department's direction, said the bunker mentality is gone.

"I haven't felt like anyone out there has been told not to talk to me," a practice that greatly offended lawmakers last year.

Haun, for his part, is practical about his relationship with lawmakers. He recognizes that he can't achieve his goals by alienating people whose support is vital.

"For us to succeed, the Legislature has to understand and know what we're doing," he said. "So I've opened up the department. I've responded to their inquiries. I want them involved."