Isaac knows that he served time in the Utah State Prison for a reason. He understands the public expects there to be consequences for his actions.

But what Isaac would like the public, including policymakers, to also recognize is that there are many inmates who want to turn their lives around. However, unless more resources and support are provided — particularly for mental health counseling — some inmates will fall right back into their old habits once they are released.

"Ultimately, (prison) is a punishment. But if you take advantage of what's there … it really can change your life. And I feel it did that for me and continues to do that for me," he said, while also noting, "If we had better mental health services in prison, and even in the county jails, what an impact that would make. And I honestly believe a lot of people wouldn't reoffend because they would actually really be addressing what's really going on up there.

"There are good inmates in prison that genuinely do want to change that are trying," he continued. "And I'm like, 'Just help us. Yeah, we screwed up. Yeah, we are being punished, prison is not supposed to be a joyous experience. But for those of us who want to change, let it happen.'"

Isaac, who agreed to speak about his experience if his last name was not used for this story, is a registered sex offender in Utah. He has been convicted of sexual solicitation of a child and sexual exploitation of a minor. Isaac was sent to the Utah State Prison in June of 2018, released in 2022 and terminated from his parole earlier this year. He agreed to share his story in an effort to raise awareness about what he believes is the need for more one-on-one mental health counseling for inmates and continued affordable services once they are released from prison.

"When I first got (to prison), I wish that somebody would have said, 'You can go see somebody for mental health once a week, every week you're here,'" he said. "I wish that was a thing."

While the prison offers individual treatment and group sessions, Isaac said extra one-on-one counseling require requests to be submitted — "and that literally could take days, it could take weeks, sometimes it could take months" to fulfill.

While at the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison, Isaac found the Success Through Responsibility, Integrity, Values and Effort program, which is taught by inmates, to be particularly helpful. He said during one class, he asked his fellow inmates how many would take advantage of mental health services if they had better access.

"The hands shot up like firecrackers going off. I said, 'Exactly.'"

He also believes the sex offender treatment offered by corrections officials could be improved.

"I just felt like, are we really addressing what people's behaviors are? And I didn't feel like it did. I had to ask myself, 'What led you down this path to get from point A to point C to point F, and so on? I didn't feel like sex offender treatment did that," Isaac said.

Convicted sex offender Isaac poses for photos in Salt Lake County on Friday.
Convicted sex offender Isaac poses for photos in Salt Lake County on Friday. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Another problem, he said, is that inmates who are closer to getting a parole hearing are given priority for classes before those who have just recently been incarcerated, meaning sex offenders can't take some classes right away.

"There has to be a better way," Isaac said. "I understand we're here to be punished. But if the public had a better sense of what really goes on in prison, I would honestly believe that the public, regardless of what that person has done, wants that person to get help."

No one-size-fits-all plan

However, Anndrea Parrish, the programing director for the Utah Department of Corrections sex offender treatment programs, said studies have shown that giving sex offenders the opportunity to enroll in some classes closer to their parole date is more effective, as some offenders are serving long sentences.

"There's a misperception that more treatment is better," she said. "You can provide too much dosage, like giving someone too much aspirin."

Parrish also notes that there is not a one-size-fits-all plan for sex offender treatment. The type of treatment an inmate receives depends a lot on their "risk level," or the likelihood of that inmate committing the same crime again if released.

And Parrish says the notion some hold that "sex offenders can't be rehabilitated" is not true.

Approximately 1/3 of Utah's prison population are inmates who have committed sex offenses. And about 90% of them will be released one day. But over the past three years, Parrish said the recidivism rate for sex offenders has been a low 2.2%.

Both Parrish and Amanda Alkema, the interim director of the Clinical Services Bureau, say the COVID-19 pandemic caused a lot of therapists to switch into the private sector. They acknowledge there is currently a shortage of mental health staffing at the prison due to several therapists leaving over the past year and the difficulty of hiring licensed clinicians. Inmates' care requests are currently prioritized based on the level of urgency of each inmate.

But Alkema is optimistic that positive changes will be made when the Department of Health and Human Services takes over health care in Utah's prison system starting July 1. She says while they are working on recruitment and retention of licensed therapists by looking at ideas such as tuition reimbursement, they are also implementing new strategies to give inmates more access to mental health care, such as telehealth.

A room at the new Utah Correctional Facility in Salt Lake City used for group therapy in the state’s sex offender treatment program.
A room at the new Utah Correctional Facility in Salt Lake City used for group therapy in the state’s sex offender treatment program. | Josh Szymanik, KSL-TV

Furthermore, Parrish says it's also important for organizations outside the prison to collaborate and help with inmates' needs once they are released.

"There has to be a strong network of individuals willing to support people on getting back to society," she said. "(The Utah Department of Corrections) can't be the only player. We have to get help from community partners and other social services that connect people to jobs."

'You can't make somebody change'

Isaac agrees that being a convicted sex offender presents its own unique set of challenges when reentering the real world.

"It's like climbing Mt. Everest without oxygen and without gear. It's like climbing 10 Mt. Everests. It's next to impossible," he said. "Finding a job or even a place to live is difficult. Your credit is crap when you get out of prison."

For his current living situation, Isaac said he just had to be up front with his landlord and told him, "I just need a chance. I just need a place to live."

Furthermore, now that Isaac is off parole, he doesn't have health insurance yet and can't afford to see a counselor, even though he would still like to have a professional person to talk with.

"I've been off of parole since February. But I would really love to still benefit from finding a therapist to help me continue to deal with whatever I'm dealing with," he said.

Two days after speaking to, Isaac says he was fired from his job without reason. He says being told "no" multiple times and not being given a second chance "over and over" takes a toll on a person's mental health.

Isaac says he understands the skepticism some people have regarding convicted sex offenders. But in order to successfully move forward, he has to block out the negative comments. He says he did the self-loathing and self-hating thing in the past, and it was "not helping."

"There's not a day that goes by that I'm not reminded of, 'Oh yeah, I was in prison.' But that's not a bad thing. There have been times when I've been like, 'Isaac, you're not beating yourself up because that's not helping you move on.' It's good to have reminders that I was there because then I'm not forgetting the things I learned and forgetting why I don't want to go back there," he said.

But ultimately, Isaac says sex offender treatment and mental health therapy will only work if the inmate is ready to change.

"If you're going to fight it and buck the system, it's not going to work," he said. "You have to want to get help because you can't make somebody change."

For Isaac, he said it took him "hitting rock bottom a few times, realizing I'm missing out on life" before he made a real effort to change.

"I think I had to really start believing in myself and saying, 'Isaac, you can't keep doing this or you will be in here forever, like it's not working for you or anyone else. You continue to hurt people that you care about. And you continue to ultimately hurt yourself.' And I really had to have many come to Jesus moments with myself and say, 'Isaac, you are worth fighting for.'"

Convicted sex offender Isaac poses for photos in Salt Lake County on Friday.
Convicted sex offender Isaac poses for photos in Salt Lake County on Friday. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

In Isaac's case, he says he was bullied all of his life, in addition to having Asperger's syndrome.

"Growing up, I just never had self-confidence. I always thought I was the stupid one just because people would tell me that. And they would tell me that so much that I believed it. When I was in prison I was called every name under the sun. I was spit on. I had boogers and snot wiped on me. I had people threaten me, get in my face. And I had to learn how to stand up for myself," he said.

Isaac says his relationships became unhealthy because he began using his partners for sex rather than investing in them, and he soon developed a sexual addiction.

"I really had to learn, 'That's not what you need to use to cope. That's not a healthy way of coping,'" he said.

'I'm grateful to prison'

Isaac said he was fortunate to find a therapist while in prison who helped him, and was able to continue to see him when he was paroled.

"Even though he had to be blunt with me and have hard conversations sometimes, I could tell he genuinely cared because he went out of his way, or he'd call me if I was ever struggling with something, or I could call him if I was struggling and he would walk me through it — even if it was really hard and even if there was consequences for whatever it was," Issac said.

He also gives props to the Adult Probation and Parole agent who was assigned to his case. Although Isaac says he can't defend everything the agency does, he feels he got lucky by getting a good case agent.

"Even though he had to send me back to jail twice and send me to a halfway house, he did what he honestly thought was best for me. I may not have agreed at the time, but I will forever be in his debt because he genuinely tried to help me. Now, they're not all like that," he said.

When asked whether he believes he could have gotten to where he is today without prison, Isaac said, "I believe things happen for a reason. And I believe something drastic in my life had to happen for me to get to this point. Unfortunately, prison was that thing. So in a way, I'm grateful to prison for getting me to really see what I couldn't see about myself that needed help."

But Isaac would also like the public to realize that just because they read or hear a story in the news about a person being arrested, they don't always get to hear the whole story.

"You don't know what happened to that person to end up at that point in their life or what they've gone through. So one, shut your trap. And two, we all have things in our closet that we probably don't want people to know or ever see. And unfortunately for someone like me, the whole world sees it," he said.

"I just need to go out and be the best me I can be and prove society wrong. And if people don't like me, that's on them."