Editorial note: this is the latest in a series of articles related to the KSL Podcast, “Hope In Darkness.” Find all of our episodes and coverage here.
SALT LAKE CITY — Health problems and potentially dangerous conditions inside a Venezuelan prison combined to send a Utah man, held there for nearly two years, into a deep depression.
In the latest episode of “Hope In Darkness: The Josh Holt Story,” Holt talks about his battle with depression and how his faith got him through at a time when counseling, medication and therapy weren’t available to him.
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A series of health problems
While being held at El Helicoide prison in Caracas, Venezuela, Josh Holt encountered a number of health issues, some of them serious. But repeatedly, the guards and prison management refused to take him to be treated.
The situation may be best demonstrated through what should have been a minor medical mishap in the United States: a hemorrhoid.
Part of the reason a hemorrhoid became an emergency was the conditions in which Holt lived inside the prison. He shared a cell with three other men, and their room did not have a toilet or running water. At times, because he did not want to use the bathroom in front of his cellmates, Holt said he would “hold it” until the guards took him out to bathe himself – an event that gave him access to a real toilet on occasion. Eventually, this led to constipation.
“And one day, after being constipated for over four to five days, I finally got a hemorrhoid,” Holt said. “I knew how to take care of it, but I didn’t know how to take care of it in this situation.”
He had no way to clean himself and no access to the ointment or creams to help relieve the problem.
In a rare show of concern for prisoner welfare, the guards agreed to allow Holt to see a paramedic who came into the prison.
“And when he looked at it, he basically just took his finger and shoved it right back up — and broke it, of course,” Holt remembered. “I started bleeding really, really bad, for the next three to four days.”
Holt soaked through multiple layers of toilet paper, several times a day. His parents worried, in part because he’d lost a lot of weight and was drinking brown water, that perhaps something more serious than a hemorrhoid was at issue. His mother convened a news conference on the front lawn of her Riverton home. She demanded Venezuelan officials take him to see a doctor.
“I am pleading as a mom to the Venezuelan government to please don’t let him lay there and just die,” Laurie Holt said in the news conference.
The guards never took him to a hospital, but in a development Josh Holt can’t explain, the bleeding eventually stopped.
“And it was one of those blessings that I just can’t understand. But I was so grateful for it, because I was honestly really scared what was going to happen. This isn’t the cleanest environment that I was living in,” he said.
More health issues
Throughout Josh Holt’s prison stay, he fought a nagging cough that wouldn’t seem to go away and struggled at times to breathe. Prison officials dismissed it as “just asthma.” His family worried it might be pneumonia or bronchitis. The cough didn’t go away until he came home in 2018.
Back pain plagued both Josh and Thamy Holt in prison, likely because they slept on two-inch pads on a tile floor. Eventually, they managed to get a real mattress for Josh — a used hospital mattress, but a mattress nonetheless. But it was an improvement that in reality caused more problems.
“I began to itch. And it wasn’t a whole lot at first, but after a week, I started itching a lot and it was everywhere,” Josh Holt said.
He had scabies. Scabies results when tiny mites burrow into your skin to lay eggs. Outside of a prison, it’s easy enough to treat: there are ointments or creams for the skin, but you must also treat the bedding where the scabies came from to prevent re-infestation. For most people, washing fabrics in very hot water and running them through a dryer is sufficient to address the problem.
The Holts had no access to a washer or dryer, so they improvised.
“I had to somehow pay someone to give me an iron so I could iron my bed,” Josh Holt said.
Yet another health emergency compounded Josh Holt’s growing sense of helplessness.
“I chipped my tooth in half. And I suffered with that tooth chipped in half like that for probably about four months,” he said.
It was painful and possibly infected. Eventually, the prison arranged for dental help to come in, but the dentist who came arrived with an X-ray machine that didn’t work and a lack of medication.
“They didn’t inject any type of numbing agent or anesthesia type stuff towards my mouth, and they just went in there with their drill and started drilling away,” he said.
It was every bit as horrible as it sounds. Josh Holt described steeling himself for the pain, knowing there was nothing he could do but endure it.
“I’d just have to literally put my hands in fists, put them under my butt, and then just curl my feet and with all my strength, just squeeze as tight as I could with anything I had in my body, and just wait and wait and wait until they finished,” he said. “And finally they finished, and they just kind of put a cap on it.”
After all of that work, the tooth still wasn’t fixed. Josh Holt sent photos home showing the botched repair job to his family. With only dirty brown water to rinse his mouth with, he wasn’t surprised when it became infected. The pain throbbed constantly, even in his sleep, radiating from his chin to his ear every single day.
Since coming home to the United States in 2018, Holt has still endured repeated painful attempts to fix his tooth.
A one-year anniversary
In July 2017, reporters again visited Jason and Laurie Holt, Josh’s parents, to mark his one-year anniversary in prison.
“It’s frustrating,” Laurie Holt told KSL-TV at the time. “I can’t even explain the heartache that you feel as a mom or a parent.”
But by August, the family had reason for renewed hope. The Holts finally got the pre-trial hearing they’d had delayed so many times since their initial 2016 arrest. The hearing went well — so well, family members believed Josh and Thamy Holt would be released at the next hearing, that the judge would have to see there wasn’t enough evidence to keep going.
“And the awesome thing about this moment was, my sister was about to get married,” Josh Holt said.
A family friend was so confident Josh and Thamy Holt were going to be released, he arranged to have a tailor standing by during their next hearing, to measure Josh for the tux he would need for his sister Jenna’s wedding.
“Well, of course it doesn’t go how they thought it was going to go, and we weren’t freed, and so I wasn’t able to actually be there for my sister’s wedding,” he said.
Family members carried on as best they could, but Josh and Thamy’s absence hung like a shadow over the festivities.
“It was bittersweet, I’ll put it that way,” said Jason Holt, Josh Holt’s dad. “There’s a picture of Jenna and I that I saw — I don’t know if it was her Facebook or mine or what. We’re doing the first daddy-daughter dance with her, and wiping a tear. I still remember that. It was two-fold. I was so happy for her, but then it was sadness because our family wasn’t all together.”
Sitting in his cell late at night after his sister’s wedding, Josh Holt started to get photos and video from family members who had attended.
“I think the thing that tore me up the most was getting my sister’s video,” he said. “Just to see how beautiful she looked and to see all of my family there together, to see them all laughing. I remember just laying there and crying that entire night.”
“I don’t know what it was that finally pushed me over the edge, but I finally had that thought come into my mind, that I was ready just to kill myself,” Josh Holt said.
The family noticed in his calls and texts home that something had changed in his mood.
“I remember there was one time that ... he called and he was very suicidal,” remembered older brother Derek Holt.
Josh Holt says his brother saved his life that night.
“I told them that I loved them all very much, but that this would probably be the last time that I would ever talk to them again,” Josh Holt said. “And I remember my brother, Derek, grabbed that phone, and he said, ‘Joshua, you stop it right now. I told you that someday I’m going to meet you at the airport. And that’s going to be as you’re walking down that escalator, not as you coming off that airplane in a box.’”
Suicide prevention resources
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call the suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.
- Utah County Crisis Line: 801-691-5433.
- Salt Lake County/UNI Crisis Line: 801-587-3000.
- Wasatch Mental Health Crisis Line: 801-373-7393.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
- Trevor Project Hotline for LGBTQ teens: 1-866-488-7386.
- NAMI Utah: namiut.org.
- Utah Chapter-American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: afsputah.com.
- Suicide Prevention Lifeline:
Josh Holt didn’t take his own life, but his depression continued to drag him down. Without access to counseling or other treatments, he had only himself and his faith to try to claw his way back into the light from the dark.
Just when he thought he couldn’t hold on any longer, his mother-in-law brought him a copy of Ensign magazine, a publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that contained an article about finding joy in chains, referring to the Apostle Paul’s time in jail.
Holt thought about those words repeatedly in the remaining months of his prison stay.
“Out of nowhere, I would feel this amazing amount of love and care. ... I would just feel this warmth just come over me,” he said. “And I’d know that everything was going to be OK, that this wasn’t going to last forever.”
Hope in Darkness releases new episodes weekly on Wednesdays. Subscribe free on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or wherever you listen to podcasts.