In Prison, and Ye Came unto Me
March 1991

“In Prison, and Ye Came unto Me,” Ensign, Mar. 1991, 65

“In Prison, and Ye Came unto Me”

Through the work of dedicated volunteers, some Utah prison inmates are learning that the Spirit is free to touch their lives anywhere.

“I thank God that I came to prison.”

Vic, a thin, handsome man, clutches his scriptures tightly in both hands. His light blue shirt emphasizes the clear color of his eyes. The shirt has a prison number stenciled above the left pocket.

Before coming to the Utah State Prison, he spent years gratifying his emotional and physical needs in worldly ways. Now, it’s hard for him to understand how someone who had the blessings of Church membership and temple marriage could have fallen so far.

But Vic says his experiences in prison have saved his spiritual life. At first, he struggled with feelings that he was beyond help. Now he knows he can regain those blessings he enjoyed in the past. This assurance has come as he has participated in the gospel, to the extent possible, through Church programs at the prison.

Vic is one of several hundred Utah prison inmates, male and female, LDS and non-LDS, who take part regularly in Church activities: Sunday worship services, five-day-a-week institute classes, once-a-month home evenings with a visiting family, and Friday night entertainment programs.

These activities are “my life,” Vic says. “The program that the Lord has here at the prison is exactly what I needed but didn’t have the courage to seek.”

“There are a lot of [inmates] who are starving for spirituality.”

Heber J. Geurts first saw the inmates’ need for spirituality when, as a young bishop in 1955, he visited two ward members at the Utah State Prison. His visit drew him into volunteer work. In 1966, Brother Geurts helped initiate the prison family home evening program. Now in his early eighties, he is the dean of LDS volunteers at the prison and is still the spark plug of the family home evening program there. But he points out that there are more than fifty other volunteer priesthood holders and Relief Society sisters who also serve among the inmates.

In addition, there are 125 families who share their regular home evening with an inmate once a month (115 men and 10 women are in the program). Nearly three dozen more inmates are waiting to be assigned a home evening family, but that can’t happen until more families come into the program.

Noel Enniss and Marvell Jones are the bishops of the Draper South Point and the Draper North Point branches at the prison—units of the Draper Utah Stake. The branches have no official membership lists, but the South Point branch has more of the prison population in its boundaries. North Point includes the young adult correctional facility and the women’s facility.

Why have bishops over branches? One reason, explains Bishop Enniss, is that while some inmates may not understand the gospel very well, they recognize a bishop’s key role in helping them begin their repentance through confession of sins. Sometimes, he says, it’s possible to see the Atonement take effect almost “before our very eyes” as burdens of sin are lifted from inmates’ shoulders.

In addition to organized branches, inmates benefit from an institute program that awarded certificates of achievement to three hundred people in 1990. About 30 percent of the institute participants do not come from an LDS background. Like other Church programs at the prison, institute classes are open to any inmate who will abide by the rules. The rules generally require inmates to maintain cleanliness in speech and dress and to stay out of trouble in the prison. To participate in the family home evening program, they must also attend worship services and institute classes regularly.

Dennis Marsh, one of the institute teachers and an LDS chaplain at the prison, says inmates tell him that institute classes are a “lifeline,” helping strengthen them against the relentlessly negative atmosphere in prison. But inmates are not the only ones who grow through their experience. “I had taught faith, hope, and charity for years in institute, and I had never understood what hope was,” Brother Marsh says—until he taught about it at the prison.

For many inmates, hope often comes through the help of volunteers called counseling specialists. Their counsel is limited to the practical application of gospel principles in inmates’ lives. Much of the time, they just listen. From Reception and Orientation (“R&O”), where the inmates spend their first days in prison, to the maximum-security areas where some will be spending the rest of their lives, LDS volunteers are frequently within earshot of inmates who need to talk. The effectiveness of the counseling specialists is perhaps best expressed by the words of an inmate who wrote to the father of one of the volunteers:

“I have marveled at the moments I’ve been able to share with your son, for in spite of the raging [spiritual and emotional] battles that so often surround me, he seems permanently able to maintain that calm spirit of hope which is truly from the Savior himself, the very Light and Life of the world. …

“Your son has given myself and others reasons to go on living when truly we have so often contemplated ending our existence.”

Some inmates say they can tell when one of the priesthood volunteers enters their unit of the prison; even before they can see or hear the individual, they can feel a change in the spirit within the building.

Volunteers often become too caught up in their work to worry about the time it takes. Heber Geurts is at the prison almost daily. Harold Bogenrief, who is retired, puts in more than sixty hours a week at two volunteer jobs; “Bogie,” a counselor in the North Point bishopric, works as a volunteer at the prison and at LDS Employment Services. He has also been involved in the family home evening program at the prison for eighteen years.

Ruffin Bridgeforth, called as a counseling specialist ten years ago, has done volunteer work at the prison for twenty years. He has seen many inmates come and go, and then come back again. “You don’t get discouraged,” Brother Bridgeforth says, when inmates come back; you just keep loving them, keep showing faith in them, and keep teaching them to have faith that they can change. (Bishop Enniss points out that inmates who are fully active in Church programs come back about half as often as others.)

In an institution full of people skilled at lying and cheating, do some inmates try to use Church programs for their own purposes?

Of course, priesthood leaders say. But it doesn’t work. The state parole board doesn’t make its decisions based on an inmate’s religious standing. And it’s usually not hard to spot inmates whose participation is a sham. At some point, however, even these inmates may feel the touch of the Spirit. When that happens, their repentance process can begin.

“They’re singing what they feel in their hearts. There’s a spirit of love and brotherhood here.”

Sometimes, only for a few minutes before guards call them back to their cells, inmates gather around the piano after a worship service to sing LDS hymns and Primary songs. “Satan rules and reigns in the prison environment,” Hal, an inmate, explains. “The Church programs are an oasis in the middle of that.”

Like many inmates with an LDS background, Hal had done all the right things earlier in life—served a mission, gone through the temple. “But I did not know the Lord before I came here,” he says.

When he was put into isolation for a time, with nothing to do “but just pray and talk to God,” Hal says, “there was no more pretense,” only honest, simple pleading. That was when he felt the love of God reaching out to him.

He had never before read the Book of Mormon completely. Now, he says, it “has become a living book to me.” He quotes from it in conversation.

Many inmates come to know the gospel as never before.

Vic holds out his triple combination in one hand. “If I drop this book, I don’t expect it to fall up to the ceiling.” Just like natural laws, he says, the principles of the gospel are eternal, “and they work just as well inside these walls.”

Harvey knew little about the Church before he came to the prison, but he hopes to be baptized after he is released and off parole. He is grateful to know that the Lord will forgive him, and he hopes that people outside the prison will forgive, too. The gospel, he says, “is all about forgiving.”

Low—nearly nonexistent—self-esteem is a large stumbling block for most prison inmates. It’s essential to convince them that they, too, are worthwhile, that they are children of God, Bishop Enniss says. The self-esteem problem is especially acute with women, comments Jean Burbidge, Relief Society president for the women’s unit of the prison. (Six women from outside the prison—a presidency, a music leader, and two teachers—serve there.) Women inmates “just don’t think that anybody cares about them,” Sister Burbidge says. Without the strong support of the gospel and a network of Church people and programs, they are likely to leave prison, become involved in the same old negative patterns of life, and come back. (Females return to the prison at a much higher rate than males, Bogie explains.)

“We try to teach them problem-solving skills,” says Wanda Lindstrom, a counselor in the Relief Society presidency. Some of the women need help with “real, down-to-earth stuff—drugs, alcohol, and prostitution.”

But they need spiritual tutoring as well, to help them learn to give up hate toward those who have abused them, and to help build strength for resisting old behavior patterns when they get out.

“The bottom line is that they cannot do it by themselves,” Sister Lindstrom says. “They have to rely on the Lord. There is no other way.”

Sister Burbidge notes that the women’s self-esteem is enhanced by opportunities to serve. “They want to do things for people.” Last year, they enthusiastically joined in a local stake’s project to make quilts for a hospital. They enjoy keeping a garden, even though they aren’t allowed to eat the produce; they are content to know it will go to help feed the homeless.

Both male and female inmates express gratitude for the outstanding people who perform or speak at Friday night activity programs. The fact that these people care about them is another self-esteem booster.

“He is one of my sons, and I want him back. If you won’t work with him, I’ll find someone who will.”

Once, Bishop Enniss felt reluctant to deal with an inmate whose crimes were especially repugnant. The strong impression came to him, in the words above, that the Lord loved the inmate as a son and wanted someone to help him return home. Bishop Enniss remembers another time when he felt “I don’t have a blessing for that man.” Then the words came to his mind: “They’re not your blessings, they’re mine,” and the Lord pronounced a blessing, through the bishop.

After five years as bishop, Noel Ennis says, “This is the most spiritual experience I’ve ever had in the Church.”

Wanda Lindstrom echoes his feelings: “I have felt the Spirit of the Lord very powerfully within those two-foot-thick walls.”

Counseling specialist Steve Grimshaw has felt it, too. “It becomes apparent that the Savior hasn’t given up on these people.” That realization makes Brother Grimshaw and his family determined not to give up on the inmates, either. He says of the man they visit for family home evening, “We consider him as a son.”

Henk Dorenbosch is a stake president, and his job requires an extensive time commitment. Still, he, his wife, Judy, and their five children find time to share family home evening with an inmate. “We don’t know what he’s in for. We don’t care,” Brother Dorenbosch says. They’ll keep going as long as he’s there. The whole family misses him when some hitch at the prison blocks their monthly visit.

John and Renee Jacks encounter problems each time they are scheduled to go to the prison, she says. But “the nights when we have fought the hardest to go have been the nights when our prisoner needed us the most.”

The Jackses drive from North Ogden, about an hour away. (Some families drive even farther.) Why do they do it? Because “the Lord needs us to work there,” Brother Jacks answers.

Most people feel some fear about going into the prison for the first time. Sister Jacks is perhaps more vulnerable than most because she is in a wheelchair. She felt apprehensive until inmates, joined by children from the family home evening groups, sang “I Am a Child of God.” At that point, she recalls, the Spirit of the Lord whispered, “This is my work. Thank you for choosing to work with me.”

Larry, an inmate assigned to another family, says the home evenings have strengthened him for the day when he is released. But, he adds, “there needs to be developed in the community a support system” to help those coming out of prison to stay out.

“If you’re doing the things you should be doing, people will bury the past. They will forgive.”

Along with that assurance, Bogie gives exiting inmates this advice: find new friends and a new environment to help avoid old habits, and stay close to the church of your choice. “Play the game the Lord’s way,” he tells them.

Two who have done it say it’s possible.

Dave came out of prison in the 1970s. He joined the Church, was sealed to his wife in the temple, and now lives in another state, where he serves on the stake high council. Jack was a hard case whose conversion came as a surprise to everyone who knew him. Released in 1988, he will soon be sealed to his wife in the temple. The experiences of these two men suggest several important factors in helping former inmates stay out of prison. Each had the support of a loving spouse, of extended family or friends, and of Church members. And each was able to find employment.

The Church program at the prison includes a Bridging Committee, which tries to see that other inmates have these same advantages, if possible. Committee members talk with the “street bishops” (the bishops of the wards in which the inmates will be living when they are released) to see that the inmates will have Church contacts. The volunteers offer what help they can with problems—lack of communication, alcohol and drug abuse—in the inmate’s home environment. They may be able to help in finding a job—temporarily, perhaps, in one of the Church’s Deseret Industries warehouses.

The objective, says Maurice Clayton, head of the committee, is to “anchor” former inmates in the community and in the gospel, helping them keep, and build on, the spirituality they found in prison. “It’s not complex. It’s quite simple. It’s just a lot of work.”

Each inmate who doesn’t return to prison saves the state money and may spare society some trauma. But these may be the least important reasons for offering help to inmates through Church programs.

Looking back on the experiences that brought him to prison, Larry comments: “I realize how I’ve offended Heavenly Father, and I don’t want to do that again.” He feels that “God may have forgiven me, but I have a hard time forgiving myself.”

Bishop Jones says Larry’s dilemma is common. However, “just because they’ve been guilty of a crime doesn’t mean they can’t be beautiful people when they repent,” he comments. “They don’t need to carry this around with them for the rest of their lives.”

Recognizing inmates as sons and daughters of God, Bishop Jones explains, should make us want to help them redirect their lives. “We want them to start progressing right now.

Photography by Philip S. Shurtleff

At worship services, the same spirit touches both the prison’s “men in blue” and volunteers from outside.

Wishing a departing inmate well, Heber Geurts has been known to add: “The bishop doesn’t want to see you in his branch ever again!”

The love of people from outside who come in to serve inmates helps them feel their own worth as children of God, Bishop Enniss says.

Some inmates say that without regular gospel study they would crumble under the daily onslaught of evil behind prison walls.

Little children are a rarity behind prison walls, and they often learn to think of the inmates they visit almost as members of the family.

Inmates attend worship services for spiritual strength, and the pews are usually packed.