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Class that helps inmates battle their demons may fall victim to budget cuts

OUT program teaches prisoners in Utah County to look inward

Val Ellison teaches inmates about healthy relationships during a session of the OUT program at the Utah County Jail.
Val Ellison teaches inmates about healthy relationships during a session of the OUT program at the Utah County Jail.
Jason Olson, Deseret News

SPANISH FORK — The men stand in a circle, their arms linked around each other's backs.

"Thirty seconds for Val," one of them says, head bowed.

"Thirty seconds for Tiffany," says another.

"Thirty seconds for our children."

"Thirty seconds for the addict suffering tonight," comes another quiet voice.

After the entire group has offered their "30 second" prayers, the men recite another prayer together, asking for courage to change the things they can and serenity to accept what they can't.

"I choose to live well!" is their closing shout, their voices echoing off the classroom walls in the Utah County Jail.

That motto permeates every treatment session in the On-Unit Treatment, or OUT program, that helps jail inmates address addictions and underlying life issues.

"Everything I'm sharing with you is designed to help you improve the quality of your life," Val Ellison told his male class on a recent Tuesday.

For 11 years, in four-week sessions, Ellison, instructor and program coordinator for the Utah County Division of Substance Abuse, has been brutally honest with his incarcerated pupils about why they're struggling.

It's tough, but they need it.

However, recent budget constraints have cut the teachers to two: Ellison and Tiffany Allred, the lowest staffing levels ever.

And it's not looking any better. The State Legislature is proposing massive cuts to the Utah Department of Health budget.

Although the OUT program is run with county general fund dollars, if Utah County's Department of Health loses state funds, the ripple effect could be huge.

Richard Nance, director of the Utah County Division of Substance Abuse is trying desperately to cling to programs, especially OUT, but it's hard when his financial forecast looks so bleak.

Although OUT costs $150,000 a year for staff, computers and phones, if it's a choice between funding OUT or using that $150,000 for a women's program that brings in 3-to-1 matching federal dollars, it's an unfortunate no-brainer.

"Val is incredibly adept at motivating people, tapping into their most fundamental human needs, emotional needs," Nance said. "It would be really unfortunate if we lost that program. I think it would be unfortunate if we lost any program."

Through the OUT program, Ellison estimates he has taught nearly 7,500 inmates.

But on Tuesday, Ellison's focus is on the 20 men in blue jail outfits, who cringe at the thought of losing the OUT program, calling such a potential decision "catastrophic."

Tuesday's lesson began with the inmates writing their sexual histories. Ellison doesn't read them, but he wants the men to go back and realize all the people they have injured or used while they were living life poorly.

At first it seems an odd topic. After all, the third week's focus is "Relapse Prevention."

"Most of you have never thought that your sexual histories are ruining your life," Ellison tells them.

None of them have.

So he explains. Like attracts like, so they fall in love with someone just like them, who is also living life poorly.

The infatuation is intoxicating and pushes aside all the men's other concerns, like work, debts, poor habits, drug addictions.

But after the "honeymoon" phase, the infatuation wanes and the problems start creeping back in, leaving the men to think it's a flaw with their significant other. So they dump them and move on to the next "right one," without addressing the underlying issues.

And that's completely backwards, Ellison tells them.

"In order to find the right one, you have to be the right one," Ellison says loudly and slowly, and every pencil starts moving.

It seems obvious, but these men have never heard their lives dissected to accurately, nor their problems diagnosed so clearly.

The most influential words from the class for student inmate Wes have been "introspective" and "self-aware."

"I need to realize I caused this upon myself," he said. "I blamed others my whole life. I thought my problem was drugs. My problem was my whole way of thinking. That's something I never realized."

All the inmates agree OUT has helped them more than any other program because the class and homework are so painfully introspective.

It's not just about breaking a cocaine or heroin habit. It's about eliminating thinking errors and relationship traps that keep these men filled with turmoil — a perfect precursor to drug use.

"Most centers deal with addiction, not the person," said Rhett, another inmate. "This makes you open your eyes to more than just your addiction."

Yet despite the painful moments, Mike said he looks forward to the class each day. The weekends are tough, he said. No class.

Ellison and Allred teach both men and women in three separate groups a day, five days a week.

Some inmates have been in the program several times, soaking up the insight and desperately trying to make the changes they need to live well.

They want to be back with their families and children. They want to have successful relationships and bring home honest money.

They don't want to be in jail.

They listen to Ellison because he teaches them they don't have to keep coming back.

"Val brings light to a place that is so dark," said Drew. "His spirit is so huge in this place. He gives us all hope, which is rare."

E-MAIL: sisraelsen@desnews.com