‘I want to be productive’: Utah prison inmates find purpose by helping each other

Apr 25, 2024, 5:19 PM | Updated: 6:32 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Inside building B2 at the Utah State Correctional Facility, there’s a different energy.

Mark Evans, an inmate who has spent decades behind bars, leads a discussion about time management and hope.

“I want to get out of prison. I want to be productive,” Evans tells an audience of his fellow inmates Thursday morning. “I want to succeed in life. I don’t want to continue to come back to this place.”

Inmates nod their heads, and some share their own stories. At the end of each session, they clap loudly and yell, “rock solid!”

It’s a verbal reminder of a new program that aims to help them improve themselves – and flip the script on what it means to be in prison.

“We’re rocking it, we’re doing it,” Evans said, “and it just feels so good.”

Inmates seek change

The Utah State Correctional Facility in Salt Lake City, which opened less than two years ago, is home to more than 3,000 inmates.

Of that group, nearly 400 are participating in SOLID. That stands for “Successful Offenders Learning Individual Development.” The program just launched in January.

“Every single day we’re having seminars, we’re having classes, where we learn something new every single day,” Evans said.

The program is led by inmates with support from prison staff. Every day they teach each other things like career skills, Spanish, even yoga. They take part in mentorship activities and learn how to solve problems, deal with anger, and address the root issues that led them to prison.

They also live together in the same building with freedom to mingle, and they encourage each other.

“This guy is amazing right here,” Trovon Ross said, sitting next to Sione Kauvaka. Both men are participants in SOLID. Both are also in prison for murder. Kauvaka is set to be released in a few months. But Ross is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole and will never leave.

Even with that, Ross said he has embraced the program and the skills he can develop through it.

“I accept this for what it is,” he said, “and so I’m dedicated to help these guys recover, to rebuild their life, and to bring purpose to their life.”

The program was conceived by inmates like Zachary Martindale.

“We had had change within ourselves,” Martindale said, “that we wanted to bring that collective healing to other people.”

Participants say in SOLID, they’re seen as people, regardless of what they’re in prison for.

“You come in here willing to want to change,” said Kofi Gbedemah, an inmate participating in the program, “willing to just be part of something that is bigger than you.”

It seems to be catching on. Right now, SOLID has nearly 400 participants with about 70 more on a waiting list, according to the Utah Department of Corrections.

“We made mistakes in the past. Some mistakes we can’t make up,” said Kauvaka. “But the least we could do is better ourselves.”

Martindale agreed.

“We’re addressing those mistakes, and we’re healing from them,” he said. “We’re growing from them, and we’re going in a direction that we can become part of society in a healthy way.”

‘I’m succeeding’

As for Evans, he said he could be paroled “anytime.” He hopes to one day be back in society to practice what he’s preaching.

Until then, he’s committed to making a difference within the prison walls.

“I believe really strongly that my Heavenly Father has a plan for me, and my plan in life is to help others,” Evans said. “That’s my imprint, and I’m succeeding in doing that every day.”

Inmates have to be accepted into the program by first writing a letter of interest, which about 800 of them have already done.

Right now, SOLID is just in place for the men, corrections officials said, but a similar program for women is in the works.

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‘I want to be productive’: Utah prison inmates find purpose by helping each other