Mike was feeling dejected after his first few months in prison, when he noticed an older man struggling to push his walker around the dirt track. “I’m trying to find a way to kill myself in prison,” the aged inmate told him.
“Do you have anyone on the outside?” Mike asked.
“No,” Ray told him — explaining that he had “lost hope completely.”
On Mike’s next call with his wife and children, he said, “Hey, there’s this guy who’s thinking of killing himself. He’s an old man; he has nobody.”
“Let’s adopt him,” his wife suggested. Despite her own heavy responsibilities at home, she began coordinating regular letters and pictures from the kids.
“Mail in prison is a big deal — just having something from the outside world come in,” Mike said, who like many others in this story asked to be identified just by his first name.
Ray’s hand shook, and it would take almost an hour to write a letter back. But he corresponded with the family for many months. Their adopted “Grandpa Ray” spoke often to other residents about the family and waved at Mike one day from his dorm, showing him the kids’ pictures on the wall.
Ray didn’t want to end his life anymore. And there was “light coming from him,” Mike remembers. “He had purpose — he had someone who cared about him.”
Mike’s family “didn’t even want to know” what Ray had done in his past. “It didn’t matter. He was a son of God.”
A pleasant surprise
There are few groups who carry more societal stigma than current or former prisoners — sometimes they’re even feared by those who want to help.
“I was afraid to come,” prison volunteer Ken Kenneths admits. “I watched the movies where the gangs beat people up.”
“It’s totally the opposite,” he said. “What surprises most people is the spirit they feel here,” says Charlotte Burnett, whose husband Richard leads the Bear Creek Branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the Utah State Correctional Facility.
On the day I attended this branch’s worship service with Marielle Scott, a Deseret News photojournalist, we were warned attendance “may be light” because of the NFL Championship games that day.
But the modest-sized chapel filled up with dozens of residents and volunteers. “We’re going, no matter who’s playing,” Reupena “Joseph” Tupuola told his Samoan brothers on the unit.
Mark Callan, who has volunteered with his wife Sandy in several capacities within the prison district, also serves as a sealer in the Bountiful temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Comparing the two experiences, he says in working with the incarcerated and newly released he feels a similar spirit — “the spirit of family and love for all of God’s children.”
Attending worship services here provides “a totally different energy” from the rest of the week, Joseph says. “There’s more to life than what they’ve got in those cells.”
The Great Salt Lake Utah District of the Church of Jesus Christ comprises six branches at the Utah State Correctional Facility near the airport (one female and five male, including one maximum security branch) and one transition branch outside of the prison.
The six prison branches interact with 1,110 people weekly in at least one activity (there are 2,995 total men and women at the prison). Depending on the night, individuals participate in addiction recovery and emotional resiliency programs, family history, family home evening, choir — “you name it, we have it,” says Steve Smith, second counselor in the District Presidency.
The 140 volunteers involved — mostly couples — make significant sacrifices in serving away from their home congregations, with an estimated 45,000 hours of service provided each year.
John Beck supervises 45 Latter-day Saint Institute teachers offering classes at the prison. In addition, 200-300 prisoners across Utah correctional facilities do “cell studies,” which works like a correspondence course.
When the pandemic threatened to shut down all religious services at the prison, one leader wrote as many as 50 letters per week to support inmates who worked to ensure that up to 30 hours of weekly peer-led church activities could continue, even without the presence of outside religious volunteers.
“We couldn’t do any of this without our partners in the department of corrections,” emeritus general authority Elder Don R. Clarke says, who has been leading the new district. “Some jails still don’t let volunteers in.”
Latter-day Saints are not alone in doing this kind of work, with dozens of faiths providing various ministries, including Jehovah’s Witness and Catholic volunteers active at the Salt Lake facility. The long history of religious ministries in prisons across the U.S. and the world is rich and encouraging.
“We see religious volunteers as a very key component to our mission,” said Glen Mills, director of communications and government relations with the Utah Department of Corrections. “We can’t appreciate and thank them enough for all the work they do on a regular basis.”
Hope for a better life
“The vast majority of inmates are going to be released from prison and reenter our community,” Mills says — citing Utah Department of Corrections data going back to 2000 that shows 90.7% of inmates across the state have been released.
Mills estimates 96% of current residents are “almost guaranteed” to be released if they can meet basic parole requirements, with more than 99% conceivably released at some point (only 0.13% have a guaranteed life sentence).
The mission of the Department of Corrections, he explains, is giving men and women leaving prison the tools they need to succeed in their new lives — something that relies on what he calls a “community effort,” including but extending well beyond faith-based efforts.
James Williams was recruited for a gang when he first arrived in prison — the same time his sister was urging him to get back to church.
“All right,” he finally told her. “But don’t expect me to participate.”
He sat in the back at first. On the Sunday we attended, James was leading the music. He said worship service changes his “whole mood” afterward.
After being challenged to read the Book of Mormon, James said he read the entire book in four days, “up all hours of the night.”
While acknowledging it’s easy to “waste time” in prison, James is now called “the busy guy” in the unit — with a combined 52 hours of weekly work and school, alongside multiple church activities.
A trusted partnership
When residents were moved in July 2022 from Draper out to the new facility close to the airport, the plan was to recommence religious outreach at the end of August. But soon after the move in late July, prison officials called Latter-day Saint leaders and asked, “Can you come back next week?”
Those who participate in religious activities “are better residents, they are different,” says Mills. Faith also provides a “foundation for a successful reentry” once they leave, he says, which “leads to safer communities” as former inmates become “contributing members of society — paying taxes, overcoming addictions. It’s better for all of us.”
Shima Baradaran Baughman, professor at BYU Law School and distinguished fellow at Wheatley Institute, points to research confirming that faith can lead to increased well-being emotionally, physically and socially. These benefits often “account for no less than miraculous transformations” for incarcerated individuals, she wrote in an email to the Deseret News.
Hope in another world
James will be released within a year and will get to see his 8-year-old son. Others don’t have the same more immediate hopes. Jon Babb told us he would be in prison the rest of his life.
“I’ve decided it’s going to be a good part of my life,” he says. “I want to make the end of my life a chapter of life I could really be proud of, compared with my life before.”
Jon works nearly 20 hours a week as a chapel worker, helping keep the area clean, and guiding other residents in how to do family history. “It’s very rewarding for guys,” he says.
“People who go to prison are not lost forever,” Mike says of his earlier experience. “Christ can change anyone — anybody. He can take anything away. He can heal anyone. He can overcome anything.”
“The Savior reached below everything,” district executive secretary Jeff West says, before adding, “We need to remember there are victims of these people” and “we can’t minimize what they have done.”
In some cases, he said, people impacted “will never be the same today, until the hereafter.” But “the Savior’s atonement is for every one of them too.”
Individuals they work with “feel great remorse for the harm they have caused and are seeking the Savior’s help to change,” Elder Clarke says.
Many residents try to “live a covenant lifestyle in prison, as best they can,” Sister Mary Clarke said. “Some get an extra set of white prison clothing to save for Sunday.”
Not an easy transition
When released, former inmates are sometimes estranged from children and spouses, who aren’t sure how they feel about being around them.
“They are treated in many ways like lepers,” Elder Clarke said, “but the Savior can heal lepers.”
Every Tuesday morning, Presidents Brian Jeppson and Steve Smith pick up newly released individuals who have no friend or family to meet them. Since they frequently have nowhere to go, the church helps them get some clothing, food, a simple phone and tickets to where they need to travel.
On a cold Sunday morning at a transition branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in West Valley, 56 former residents and some of their family members gathered to worship. After an opening hymn and prayer, announcements are made about the upcoming activities planned that week.
In lieu of the sacrament, a sacrament hymn is sung, followed by a short period of reflection.
This is an “incredibly strong brotherhood of men who have had similar experiences, and who are now helping each other out,” Elder Clarke says. One of the members says, “This branch is an expression of God’s love for us.”
Many of those who come to worship arrive early for services and stay long afterward, says Todd Heiner, second counselor in the branch.
“There are good people in prison,” Mike says about his earlier experience. “Really good people who have made bad choices.”
“They appreciate the second chance,” he says about others in the branch. “And they’re humbly wanting to move forward with their lives as new creatures in Christ.”
A new day
“Dad, I’m so glad you went to prison, even though you were gone for so long,” Mike’s teenage son told him months after he was released and rejoined the family. “Because I love the man you’ve become.”
“I am no longer distracted with addiction,” Mike said. “I’m full of light and it’s just incredible. It is true freedom.”
When Katie was released from prison, she was also overjoyed to be reunited with loved ones. When she encounters suspicion among some who don’t know her yet, she lifts her head and says silently to herself, “This is not who I am, I have overcome this.”
Justin Elswood spoke at the prison service about not allowing this experience to define his future and how he’s made the decision that “I will not be going home the same person.”
After feeling “unforgivable” when he first arrived in prison, Justin spoke of experiencing “the love of Christ through the volunteers.”
“They love us without any regard of what we are or the mistakes we’ve made.”
“(God) tells me all the time how important you are to Him. All the time,” Elder Clarke shares in his remarks at the transition branch worship service. “We pray for you, think of you, have great hopes for you.”
“There’s no one who doesn’t need to be healed — not a one,” he adds in his remarks, suggesting it’s no coincidence church members around the world meet in “wards,” since “everyone has need of healing and repentance.”
After the service, emotion rises in his voice as Elder Clarke speaks to me about the branch members. “Society tells them they can’t. God tells them he can.”
Society still says “we don’t want you,” branch member Steve Nuttall says, but “I’m grateful for a God who doesn’t give up on anybody.”