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For Cindy Chatterson, life fell apart the same way it does for a lot of women serving time at the Utah State Prison.

She got into a bad relationship, became addicted to meth and began forging checks to pay for the drug — which is how she got busted. Chatterson first came to prison in 2003. Less than two years later, she was back. But like her first stint, it did little to change a lifestyle she calls a "way of survival for me." She relapsed 18 months after being released, resorting to drugs and alcohol, she says, to ease the pain of losing custody of her five children. Once again, she was sent to prison.

"It was a sick cycle," she said.

She speaks in the past tense because Chatterson, 45, is hopeful the cycle is over — hopeful that this time, thanks to the prison's substance abuse program, she's prepared to lead a different kind of life when she is released a year from now.

The program is called ExCell, and on Wednesday Chatterson and 23 other women, including some who have already been paroled or moved to county jails, officially graduated from the program.

There were smiles and laughs, songs and a tap dance-style stomp, and many tears as the women celebrated the kind of accomplishment that has been often elusive in their lives.

"I'm a changed girl," Shacoy Saunders chanted as she performed a rap she wrote.

ExCell, set up about a dozen years ago, is a therapeutic program located in one building at the Timpanogos Women's Correctional Facility in Draper. Women are enrolled in the program either through a judge's order or after the prison lists such treatment as a high priority in their case action plan. Some women, like Chatterson, also request the help.

In mid-June, there were some 207 women at the prison who had a history of substance abuse or were serving a sentence due to illegal drug use who were eligible for ExCell. But the program is already overbooked.

While the ExCell building houses 143 women, the program can only provide active treatment — individual and peer therapy groups — for 72 residents because of funding limitations. The rest participate in other aspects of the program aimed at changing attitudes, beliefs and behaviors while they wait, which means every aspect of residents' lives is intertwined with the positive social thinking that underlies the community's day-to-day operation.

And that starts at the most basic level. Each resident has a daily job — for new arrivals, that's the scut work of cleaning showers and taking out the trash — aimed at building self confidence and a work ethic. Residents also participate in committees charged with various functions. The Feel Good Committee, for example, decorates the building and makes special occasion cards and posters, while Dormatology oversees housekeeping and the Activities Committee sets up events such as a recent 5K. And, residents may work their way up to better jobs and more responsible positions, eventually becoming a committee or section leader.

"We not only give you the book knowledge, but the experience of living a responsible life," said Greg Hendrix, ExCell program director.

They also are tasked with presenting life skills classes on topics of their choosing once a month — Chatterson recently did a seminar on losing relationships, something drug addicts contend with as they change their lives and have to let go of friends and partners who are bad influences. A key aspect of ExCell is teaching residents to be accountable for their own behavior, as well as how to appropriately expect it of others, using a "relay" system to call each other out for negative behavior such as "dropping a lug" (making fun of someone when they do something good) or "terminating" (talking negatively about someone behind her back).

Residents who are actively enrolled in ExCell attend two-hour group sessions twice a week as well as an hour of individual therapy every other week — the latter limited because there are only three full-time therapists and no funds to hire more, Hendrix said.

While men use substances to add spice to their lives, women typically use substances to mask trauma, he said. Hendrix estimates that 85 percent to 90 percent of women who end up in prison have experienced some kind of trauma in their lives; the same percentage are substance abusers.

"We realize they go hand-in-hand," said Hendrix, who added that the recognition has led to a greater emphasis on treating trauma over the past four years.

The prison tries to time participation in the program, which takes at least nine months, with completion of a sentence so lessons are still fresh when a woman is released back into society. Some women stay on as leaders and mentors even after finishing the program until they are released, something Chatterson has chosen to do.

"We like that because they really provide a lot of stability," Hendrix said.

But not everyone appreciates the program's approach. Linda Pearce, now 63, was in the program for about three months in 2007 as she served a credit card fraud sentence, before asking to be moved because she didn't like "having another inmate tell me what I'm doing wrong when they are in there for maybe the same thing I am or worse than I am."

And limited program space means some women are paroled without ever getting a shot in ExCell. Others are paroled before finishing the program — a fact driven home for Corrections Director Tom Patterson Wednesday morning as entered the women's facility.

Patterson told ExCell graduates that as he arrived at the building's entrance a shackled woman was just being brought in by officers. He chatted briefly with the woman and learned she was being brought back to prison after violating parole. He asked if she'd participated in ExCell during her first stay and was told she had been released before completing the program.

The woman confirmed a point Patterson tried to make last week to the Utah Legislature's Executive Appropriations Committee.

"If they don't receive programming, it's more likely they will cycle back into prison," he told the lawmakers.

It's not just talk: just 30.4 percent of inmates who participate in ExCell return to prison within 18 months, compared to 42.6 percent of those who do not participate — a 29 percent decrease in recidivism.

And while the prison spends an average of $3,162 a year per inmate receiving substance abuse treatment, that expenditure potentially saves the state $1,700 in booking costs if the offender doesn't come back — and $28,500 a year to keep them incarcerated.

Hendrix sees another societal benefit, given that so many women at the prison are or are likely to become mothers: "If we can prevent a woman from coming back, we can save a generation," he said.

Ashlee Uden, 24, couldn't take her eyes off her 4-year-old daughter, who is now in the custody of her parents, as she participated in Wednesday's graduation ceremony. Getting through the program hasn't been easy and she still has a year left on her sentence.

"I've really put forth a lot of effort," said Uden, a first-time offender convicted of forgery, theft and drug use. "It's life changing. ... This program can guarantee there won't be one person who can say they didn't learn anything."

And, she hopes, an example to her daughter that "there are struggles in life but we can overcome them."

Like Uden, Chatterson hopes to rebuild a relationship with her children once she finishes her sentence. She had two mentors but no family on hand to watch as she proudly accepted her ExCell completion certificate, but she gives credit to family for her success.

It was a letter from her younger sister that finally made Chatterson, who once served in the national guard and hoped to be a nurse, face the years of trouble she brought on herself, her children and her family. In the letter, Chatterson's sister asked a simple question: "What is it we can do for you so you don't have to come back here?"

At the start of her third stint in prison, Chatterson had been placed in ExCell, but got kicked back into the general population for a 28-day "time out" because she was "acting out."

"I wasn't being open to what I needed to do different," Chatterson said. "I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I can't even complete a prison program.' "

But, the letter "hit me. ... It really made me realize that whenever I needed my family they were there for me. But whenever they needed me most, I've always been behind these barbed wire fences. You get to a point in your life where you want to do something different but you've got to know how to do it."

She buckled down, got with the program — the structure, rules and peer pressure were just what she needed, Chatterson said.

Chatterson has a year to go on her sentence, time she'll spend in ExCell as a leader and teacher of Love & Logic and other classes.

"The reward of being a success is you get to give back what you've been given," she said.

She also will continue working on the shame and trauma issues that have driven some of her past behavior.

"I don't want to live in guilt, it's too strong and powerful," she said. "Shame is something I might have done, but it's not who I am. ... I like who I am today."

Twitter: @Brooke4Trib