“Free to Believe: Prisoners Welcome the Gospel into Their Lives,” Ensign, Feb. 1982, 14
Quietly, almost unnoticed by most members of the Church, a remarkable work is proceeding within the walls of several prisons. Lives are being changed as the gospel is taken to men and women behind bars. Following are some of their stories and stories of Latter-day Saints who work with them.
When RJ (his name has been changed, as have those of other prisoners mentioned in this article) was sentenced to a twenty-five-year term in the Oregon State Penitentiary, everyone figured he had hit bottom. Everything about him—his clothes, his speech, his attitude, even the way he walked—labeled him a hopeless misfit, an outcast from society.
But after some time in prison, RJ became friendly with an inmate who was investigating The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He encouraged RJ to attend church services with him. RJ read some pamphlets, attended Sunday services, and got to know other members of the group attending the services. A member family began to share their home evenings with him once a month. He grew to respect and love the LDS leader on assignment to the prison, Brother Stanley O. Nicolaysen.
Eventually, RJ was released from prison. He looked and sounded like a faithful Latter-day Saint, though he could not be baptized until he had completed his parole.
Then he moved away from Salem—away from members who knew him and who had provided vital spiritual and emotional support. The old temptations returned, and RJ slipped. He kept on falling for months. Later he reported, “I thought I had hit the bottom when I was sentenced to prison. Well, I hadn’t. Rock bottom came after I was paroled.”
Looking up RJ was not part of Stan Nicolaysen’s stewardship, nor was driving many miles to visit him. But when he finally found RJ late one night, Stan’s heart sank. RJ was living in a broken-down hotel in Portland. There was evidence he was using liquor and tobacco, and he was unkempt.
Stan didn’t stay long, nor did he say much. But RJ was impressed that this man still cared enough to look him up and to visit him. Something within RJ was touched.
Hard years followed for RJ. He married, then saw his wife die after a lingering illness. But Stan Nicolaysen had made sure that RJ would have good home teachers. Again, RJ was impressed that the Church could care for an ex-convict with such a life-style who still had not been baptized.
When RJ moved, he discovered that his home teachers had called ahead. His new ward in Fresno, California, welcomed him, loved him, worked with him.
One day two LDS missionaries knocked on the door. RJ’s new wife, Susan, recognized them as being from the Church RJ spoke of so warmly. She invited them to return that evening when RJ would be home.
The two elders—assisted by RJ—taught the gospel to Susan, and soon both RJ and his wife were baptized.
Today RJ and his family are active, faithful members. RJ is a newly-ordained elder who teaches Gospel Essentials in Sunday School. He looks forward to taking Susan and the children to the temple next year.
What had once been called “The LDS Prison Services Program” in Salem, Oregon, now has a new name: The Salem East Branch. The name change is important. The Church’s efforts in behalf of people like RJ—some of them LDS, others former-LDS, and many more prospective-LDS—now proceed under priesthood direction. President Stanley O. Nicholaysen presides over the branch; two strong counselors assist him.
Working closely with the branch presidency are three inmates who make up the Inmate Group Leadership. Interestingly, none of the three had ever heard of the Church until they arrived at the Oregon State Prison. No one is now a member, but all three are committed to helping more inmates live more of the restored gospel more of the time. And all three look forward to being baptized after they have completed their paroles.
Has the Salem East Branch seen any failures? Plenty. But one group leader has taught the gospel to his wife and daughter, and they have been baptized. Another member of the group has seen his mother baptized. Two former members of the group leadership have gone on to parole, baptism, and temple marriage. And many other inmates are gaining testimonies of the restored gospel.
The Reader’s Digest recently had a series of features about the LDS Church with clip-out coupons or order forms offering the reader a picture of the Savior or a paperback copy of the Book of Mormon or something else to read. Hundreds of prisoners in almost all of the fifty United States have mailed the coupons, requesting information or that representatives of the Church visit them. In each case, the requested materials have been sent from Church headquarters and the local priesthood leader has been notified. In many cases, little has come of these efforts. But some prisoners have been touched by the materials and the visits of local leaders. Their letters reveal just how touched they have been.
One prisoner was so impressed that he felt the need to ask forgiveness of those whom he had wronged. “I have received letters and cards from those people whom I’ve hurt and of whom I’ve asked forgiveness,” he wrote. “They’ve written back forgiving me and wishing me well.”
“I have placed an order at one of the bookstores in Salt Lake and should be getting my new Triple Combination soon. I am going to give the standard works you sent me to the prison library so that others here can find the truth as I did!
“I can’t wait for the day that I will be worthy to hold the Lord’s priesthood and be able to perform works in his name! What a great feeling that must be!”
Another prisoner commented in a letter to the Church:
“I am a prisoner at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville and I was recently granted a parole. The Hopkinsville Kentucky Stake has been working closely with me here and outside in setting up a program for us non-Mormons. I have been in the group here behind these walls for some time now and I’m set on the Mormon Church and its teachings. … There are about fifteen inmates in our group now and we could be larger, but we suffer much pressure from those who are against us. But our strength and faith is in the Lord and we will be strong. … If I am accepted into the Church and baptized after I have served my time, would I be allowed to serve as a missionary?”
A prisoner in Louisiana revealed the effect the personal contact and the printed material had on him:
“The Lord has been very good to me, and I am so grateful. Also, I am very thankful to you for the kindness and help you have been to me. The pamphlets you sent to me answered a lot of questions. … Even though I’ve not yet been baptized, and am not yet a recorded member of the LDS Church, I would like for its members to know that I am very proud to be a part of the Church, and I stand behind the Church 100%.”
A man in prison in Florida wrote:
“The priesthood here in Marianna has found me a job, clothes, and most of all, the sincere desire of wanting me at all meetings and a willingness to come and get me.”
“Great news!” wrote a prisoner from Delaware: “Bishop Barrett came to see me again! What a blessing it is to talk with him. I feel so great after he leaves and while I’m talking with him.”
From anguished parents in southern Mexico came a letter to Church headquarters: “Our son is a good boy, but somewhat slow to learn. He ran away to Texas and broke some laws, and now he is in prison there. He has not answered our letters, so we don’t know whether he is in good health. We live in constant fear for his welfare. Could someone from the Church visit our son and report to us on his situation?”
A telephone call went out to the appropriate bishop, and a visit was made. Within days a beautiful, reassuring letter, written in Spanish, was on its way to a faithful Latter-day Saint couple in Mexico:
“Dear Brother and Sister R, “Last week the leaders of the Church in Salt Lake City asked that I make inquiries regarding the welfare of your son, R. Yesterday I visited him at the prison in ___________. He is doing well and sends on to you his love for his family.
“He has a few medical problems, primarily an infected skin condition on his right leg and some problems with acne because the prison soap is difficult to shave with. I have had the ___________ Ward, which maintains a small prison fund, place some money in his inmate account so that R can purchase regular shaving soap as well as some stationary to write letters to you. I will visit with him every two weeks, and if the infection in his leg does not clear up, I will have an LDS physician who lives in my neighborhood travel with me to give R an examination. Otherwise, he is healthy.
“Recently the prison officials moved him from his job picking cotton in the fields to an inside job cleaning and waxing floors. R says he likes this job much better. He asked me to call his grandfather, who lives near ___________, and I will call.
“After visiting with R, I spent some time with the prison officials talking about R’s situation. They said that he received a four-year sentence initially, and depending upon his behavior, he will be released sometime between ___________ and ___________. Please rest assured that I will do all that I can to watch out for R and see that he is well. I will also write to you periodically. Our Heavenly Father loves you very much, and may he bless you and your family.
“Bishop ___________ ”
He was a big man, hardened into a wary reserve by years in prison. It had been a long time since Sam had shown any kind of emotion.
For some months now he had been meeting regularly with his assigned home teacher, John H. A cautious, tentative trust had developed between them, and now for the first time John’s wife and five children were scheduled to come to the prison and share family home evening with Sam.
John introduced Sam to his wife and children, and they all sat down in one corner of the recreation room.
Everyone present felt a sense of uneasiness and uncertainty—except Jason, age four.
During the singing of “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam,” Jason slipped off his mother’s lap and went to Sam. He gazed thoughtfully at the big man and asked, “Don’t you know the words? I’ll teach you the song.”
Big Sam smiled, and the tension in the group eased. Then, while all eyes were closed during the prayer, Jason climbed up on the prisoner’s lap.
The lesson was given by one of Jason’s older sisters. She spoke of fires and fire engines and spiritual fires and spiritual fire engines. A game of Chinese Checkers followed, then another song and a prayer. While it was obvious that Sam was enjoying family home evening, he still remained cautious and reserved.
While the group was enjoying cider and donuts, Jason discovered a pencil in Big Sam’s pocket and then commandeered a sheet of paper from his mother’s purse. As the others ate and chatted, Jason drew a picture which he then presented to his prisoner friend. “Here, Sam. This is for you. I made you a fire engine.”
Big Sam couldn’t say a thing. The tears welled up in his eyes, his throat got tight, and he couldn’t talk. As the family left he shook hands, smiled, nodded, looked away a lot, but still kept control of his emotions.
Then Jason reached up and put his arms around the big man’s neck. “I like you, Sam. Did you like my fire engine?”
And Big Sam wept.
There are women prisoners, too—and Latter-day Saint sisters are on hand. One week the sisters of Pleasanton First Ward (Pleasanton California Stake) teach the two or three dozen women prisoners at the Santa Rita County Jail how to make bread. The next week sisters from the Second Ward give instruction in child development. Then the Third Ward gives a demonstration on quilting. And so on through the ten wards of the stake.
“At first I was really uneasy about going to the jail,” says Sandee Cherry, stake Santa Rita specialist. “But when I got there and met the women, and saw how they looked forward to our visit, all my fears left. Now it’s a rare week that I am not at Santa Rita.”
The inmates themselves were uneasy at first. “We thought maybe these Mormon ladies would try to preach to us or tell us we were bad people,” says one young black woman. “But we were wrong. They just came in and loved us and helped us.”
“The warmth and growth has been far greater than we ever imagined,” says sister Carol Juchau, Stake Relief Society president. “There is no barrier between ‘us’ and ‘them’; instead, we feel we are all sisters, daughters of our Father in Heaven. We have learned patience, tolerance, understanding.
“Many of the Santa Rita classes are repeats of regular Relief Society mini-classes,” reports Sister Betty Cooper, Stake Relief Society Homemaking counselor. “The inmates especially enjoy any class or project centered around children, as most of them have families. Classes on recycling clothing and ‘make your own mixes’ are very useful for women on limited incomes. Exercising, makeup, hair care, and manicuring classes really give them a lift. What a thrill it is to teach a woman some of the most basic skills that we take for granted: how to thread a needle and tie a knot at the end of the thread, how to knead a loaf of bread or sew on a button. Without a doubt the most popular classes are the cooking classes.
“Awakening the unexplored talents of these women is one of the most exciting parts of this program,” continues Sister Cooper. “But the most rewarding part for me personally is the warm friendships that develop as I get to know these women. A few years back I never would have imagined myself embracing someone just released from serving a jail sentence. But it happened not long ago after sacrament meeting in my own ward.”
Quietly, the work of the Lord progresses in many prisons. Dedicated brethren in Utah and Idaho bring hope and encouragement to people who have had little to hope for. Other Church leaders in Arizona and Washington struggle to establish strong programs. In Texas and Kentucky, priesthood leaders reach out to interested nonmembers. Other faithful priesthood leaders are doing the same in Nevada and Oregon and a dozen other locations. And in California hundreds of LDS sisters are anxiously engaged in the good cause.
“I was in prison, and ye came unto me,” said the Savior. (Matt. 25:36.) There are many in the Church today for whom those words have a special meaning.
Individuals in prison are in an uncommon environment and thus have special needs. The following “Do’s” and “Don’ts” for those who may have occasion to work with prisoners have been provided by Latter-day Saints who have had many years experience.
• work for continuity. Be there regularly. Be dependable.
• establish good relations with the prison administration.
• get a person to lead the program who can continue with it for a long time.
• get good people to help the prison leader or branch president.
• take the prison’s orientation course so that you can gain more ready access and be more effective.
• use family home evening to show how families are supposed to work, and to provide a model and an incentive.
• hold church courts before prisoners go to prison, if possible; however, a church court should not be convened until after final judgment has been entered.
• be committed, sincere, patient, tolerant, understanding.
• encourage inmate group leaders to do as much as possible (shadow leadership).
• help parolees find jobs and places to stay.
• remember: one on one is the key.
• organize according to local needs and circumstances.
• cooperate with local priesthood leaders and work under their direction.
• dwell on past mistakes.
• ask what their crime was or how long their sentence is. They’ll tell you when they’re ready.
• be disappointed if progress comes slowly. You’ll have plenty of disappointments.
• loan money. If you want to give them money after they are released, that is up to you.
• “bend” or break prison rules.