“Church Programs Assist Often-Forgotten Population,” Ensign, Feb. 2006, 73
In many ways, Maria (name has been changed) isn’t much different from other investigators who attend institute classes. She is young, enjoys reading the scriptures, and loves the feeling that attending the classes gives her. She sits with her friends, smiles often, and appreciates her institute teachers.
But unlike most of the institutes of religion around the world, the one Maria attends is surrounded by armed guards and barbed wire. As an inmate at a correctional facility in northern Utah for the past several months, this pregnant mother of two faces a much different reality than most other institute students can imagine.
While poor choices landed Maria in jail, her time in the facility has been truly rehabilitative thanks to the institute classes taught twice a week by a volunteer couple in the building’s multidenominational chapel.
“It makes me feel better when I come here,” Maria said. “It helps me get closer to God, because I pray for forgiveness of my sins and I really want to change. I feel happy when I’m here. I need it.”
Maria is not the only inmate who has felt this way. To show concern for and help out this often-forgotten group of people, the Church started seminary and institute of religion programs in correctional facilities in different parts of the country.
In addition to these gatherings, there are also simple worship services held in more than 150 correctional facility branches across the United States. Sunday meetings usually include worship service and Sunday School. Relief Society may also be held on Sunday or during the week along with opportunities to participate in family home evening, family history, and literacy or addiction groups.
While the worship services do not include the sacrament, inmates give scriptural thoughts, say prayers, and sing hymns.
Steve Sunday, manager of Administration and Special Services at LDS Family Services, which oversees the Church’s Correctional Services program, said the Holy Ghost is often felt strongly at the meetings held inside correctional facilities. “It is very touching to hear the songs of Zion radiate even from within prison walls,” he said.
In addition to bishoprics and branch presidencies being called to serve those within prisons, some branches also have called Relief Society presidencies. Although the Relief Society meeting is not part of the Sunday meeting, sisters will often meet at another time during the week.
Elder Ron and Sister Luann Stephens are among those couples that spend their time teaching inmates. The Stephenses, who have for years served those in correctional facilities, say their time spent serving inside the jails is meaningful to them.
“We are really dedicated to this,” Elder Stephens said. “It’s something that is very special to us.”
The Stephenses do not ask inmates why they are incarcerated, but they do care about those who are in jail and have a sincere desire to help.
Chris (name has been changed) is currently serving a 24-month sentence just four years after serving 17 months in jail. While his first sentence was very difficult, he said that thanks to the Stephenses, the institute classes, and Sunday services, he has been much more at peace and wants to be baptized after being released.
“Elder and Sister Stephens are a very positive impact on me,” he said. “Having them give me so much love makes me want to do the same.”
When they are not teaching institute classes or attending Sunday services, the Stephenses, along with four other couples, work in the Correctional Services office at LDS Family Services headquarters. They respond to letters from inmates or others who request religious materials.
Often stake presidents, bishops, and branch presidents will contact the office to receive information on how to start up a branch in a facility.
A prison chaplain may request a library kit that contains more than 20 types of manuals, books of scripture, and videocassettes. Prison branches are able to buy necessary items such as hymnbooks, scriptures, Church magazines, and portable keyboards.
While the curriculum and music are appreciated by inmates, the biggest blessing they receive while attending classes and services is the mighty change of heart the Spirit brings.
“I want to be a better person, a better mom, and a better daughter,” Maria said. “Then I can be closer to God.”
To contact Correctional Services, call LDS Family Services at 1-801-240-3646 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org