While working as a correctional officer in a prison housing thousands of men, I heard many life stories. Some of the incarcerated people I met were habitual offenders who had been in and out of the criminal justice system for many years. Others were in prison for the first time. Many had committed crimes to support addictions. Others had acted violently while losing control of their emotions. For whatever reason, they had now lost their liberty and would serve their sentence as decided by a judge.
As the cell door slams shut behind a person who faces the prospect of having to spend 5 to 25 years within the same four walls, what thoughts and feelings go through their mind and heart? From what I’ve heard and seen, this time is often filled with regret, introspection, self-loathing, and loneliness. Prison culture tends to accentuate the negative and can thwart a person’s attempts to find meaning and direction.
“Where Can I Turn for Peace?” (Hymns, no. 129) echoes the incarcerated person’s heartfelt cry:
Where can I turn for peace?
Where is my solace? …
Where is the quiet hand to calm my anguish?
Who, who can understand?
He, only One.
Now, as a Prison Ministry missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I can testify of the truth described in that hymn. The Savior understands and loves each person on earth, including those who are impacted by crime. Here are some of the ways the Church is helping incarcerated people draw closer to Jesus Christ.
One of our missionary assignments is to respond to the thousands of letters the Church receives from men and women who are incarcerated. We rely on prayer and inspiration to know what words the Lord would have us write to share His love and concern. We then work to connect the individual with local Church leaders for ongoing personal visits and support.
One man named Harold wrote to us to describe his journey back to the Church. “I have turned my back on the true Church long enough,” he wrote. “Without this time away I wouldn’t have had the desire or clear thinking to seek reconciliation. I am grateful to Heavenly Father for this ‘time out,’ and I am ready to come ‘home.’”
Many prisons in the United States have organized branches and offer weekly services and other meetings, with branch leadership coming from outside the prison. Other prisons have Church-service missionary couples called to minister to those in jails and prisons within their ward or stake boundaries. While I was an officer, I witnessed the change in attitude, demeanor, and behavior in those who became involved in these groups and activities. I saw light return to their eyes.
In another letter, an incarcerated man named Blake talked about the love he had discovered in the gospel and the Christlike friends he had made. “There is nothing more that I want than to be a part of that love,” he wrote.
These letters remind us that even in prison, the gospel can shed its light and attract those who are searching for meaning.
Often incarcerated people discover books and resources offered by the Church and have a desire to learn more. Materials are available from prison chaplains, and incarcerated people can write to the Church and request that scriptures and Church materials be sent to them.
We recently received a letter from an incarcerated person named Shawn, who had just received a requested Book of Mormon and Come, Follow Me manual. “I don’t know if I can possibly express to you my gratitude for sending it to me,” he wrote. “When I got the Book of Mormon, it was like a part of me was restored.” Shawn said that these materials changed, and even saved, his life. “The Spirit stirs my heart again. Heavenly Father hears my prayers. My faith has been strengthened beyond measure. I have a hope of life eternal. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
As these men and women in custody take advantage of the materials and programs the Church offers, they experience a “mighty change” of heart (see Alma 5:12–14). They feel the love and forgiveness offered to them by a loving Heavenly Father through the Atonement of His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ.
What lessons can we learn from the words of our brothers and sisters in custody? I’ve learned that the Spirit of the Lord can, and often does, reach even those who have lost their way. I’ve learned that being incarcerated may influence people to think more deeply about their true identity as a child of God if those positive thoughts and feelings have a place to be nourished. I have a testimony that Jesus Christ wants every person to come to Him and find comfort in His loving arms.
President Boyd K. Packer (1924–2015), President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, once taught that “save for the exception of the very few who defect to perdition, there is no habit, no addiction, no rebellion, no transgression, no apostasy, no crime exempted from the promise of complete forgiveness. That is the promise of the atonement of Christ.”1
Our current prophet, President Russell M. Nelson, echoes this truth: “There is always a way back. … You have not committed any sin so serious that you are beyond the reach of the Savior’s love and atoning grace. As you take steps to repent and follow God’s laws, you will begin to feel just how much Heavenly Father and His Beloved Son want you back home with Them! … They will do anything within Their power that does not violate your agency or Their laws to help you come back.”2
Do we believe in our hearts that these teachings apply to everyone? Are we not all brothers and sisters? Perhaps the greatest lesson that I’ve learned while working with incarcerated people is that the worth of souls—every soul—is great in the sight of God (see Doctrine and Covenants 18:10).