GUNNISON—The Central Utah Correctional Facility (CUCF) will lift some restrictions that have prohibited interaction between outsiders and inmates next month.
Last week, the Utah Department of Corrections (UDC) announced in a press release it would allow in-person visitation, and volunteer and religious services to resume in early June. Restrictions will be lifted in phases in accordance with COVID-19 protocols, meaning social distancing, face coverings, temperature checks and screening questions will not all be lifted immediately.
“Our incarcerated population have not seen their family in-person for more than a year,” said Brian Nielson, executive director for the Utah Department of Corrections and former sheriff of Sanpete County. “Throughout this pandemic, the incarcerated have shown great fortitude in adhering to COVID-19 guidelines in order to help slow the spread of the virus.”
The announcement of eased restrictions related to the pandemic came a day after a separate press release from the UDC said all inmates had been offered the COVID-19 vaccine. None were required to accept the shots, and any incarcerated individuals who request the vaccine in the future may receive it “as staffing and vaccines are available.”
In March of 2020, all in-person visiting was suspended. People incarcerated in the two state prisons were given the opportunity to have 10 free 15-minute phone calls per week. That option to hold virtual visits by video will remain in place, even as visitors are allowed back into prison facilities.
Scheduling a visit in person will require the approval of a visitor application, which can be found on the UDC website.
Joe Bennion of Spring City has held weekly religious services in traditions of Native Americans in the CUCF since March of 1994. He plans to resume meetings on Friday, June 11.
During normal times, Bennion said as many as 60 would join the ritual sessions “on a good day.” As the meetings resume, numbers will be limited to “however many can fit” in a circle roughly 30 feet in diameter spaced three feet apart, he said. That means the large group must break into sections.
“It might take us a while to get through all the inmates and all the sections,” he said.
The meetings involve discussions about daily life and well-being, as well as spiritual rituals. Those can include music, creating a “sweat lodge” with a fire in an enclosed space and sharing tobacco, all of which represent meanings related to prayer.
Bennion said the early discussions will focus on the past year, especially given the isolation and diminished social interactions the prisoners have experienced.
Some rituals will not be permitted yet, including the sharing of tobacco and sweat lodges.
“As the numbers change and as the CDC recommendations change, I hope we can start bringing the tobacco back into the ceremonies and get back in the sweat lodges,” he said. “It’s maintenance on the soul.”
For some who are serving sentences in the CUCF, especially for the long term, Bennion said the meetings are a way to focus on rehabilitation and mental fortitude.
He said one attendee who does not know if he will ever be able to leave on parole said about the sweat-lodge and tobacco ceremonies, “It’s like for those couple of hours I’m back home—back home with my family.”
Bennion hopes that by providing an outlet for the people who are presently incarcerated, the individuals can more easily stay on track to gaining parole and have a better time reintegrating into society upon doing so.
He described himself as not an expert on Native American traditions, but someone who enjoys facilitating the meetings to help people.
The timeline for allowing more intimate interaction between visitors, such as passing items around and allowing people to sit more closely together, is unclear. Bennion and the ritual attendees will look forward to more restrictions being lifted.
“It’s going to be a great day when we get to sweat again,” he said.