Prisoners Rescuing Prisoners: Indexing at Utah State Prison

Contributed By Heather Whittle Wrigley, Church News and Events

  • 28 October 2011

Inmates at Utah State Prison have been involved in family history work for more than two decades.

Article Highlights

  • Inmates at Utah State Prison have been doing family history work for more than 20 years.
  • Volunteers and members called from surrounding Church units administer the family history program at the prison.
  • Both inmates and the volunteers say their lives have been blessed through their work in the program.

“One of the neat things about the family history program is that it brings into focus the law of the Atonement, because you watch people change their lives.” —Brent Powell, family history volunteer at Utah State Prison

In many ways, Terry isn’t very different from many others who enjoy doing family history work. He spends multiple hours a week indexing historical records through the Church’s FamilySearch resources. He often works side by side with other patrons in his local family history center, situated adjacent to a chapel. He’s even helped some of them start their own Personal Ancestral File (PAF).

But unlike most of the 4,600 family history centers in more than 125 countries around the world, barbed wire and officers carrying firearms surround the facility Terry uses.

Inmate #60132 at the Utah State Prison for the past 14 years, Terry hasn’t always had an interest in family history. But seven years ago he decided to try out the prison’s family history center, run by volunteers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“For me, a lot of it’s about helping others,” he said. “I find joy in helping inmates find their family. Here, I have a chance to reflect on my life. I just want to be of service to others now.”

During October 2011 general conference, Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said, “The Spirit of Elijah affects people inside and outside of the Church. … We have the covenant responsibility to search out our ancestors and provide for them the saving ordinances of the gospel” (“The Hearts of the Children Shall Turn,” Ensign, Nov. 2011, 24).

For these reasons we do family history research, build temples, and perform vicarious ordinances. For these reasons Elijah was sent to restore the sealing authority that binds on earth and in heaven. We are the Lord’s agents in the work of salvation and exaltation that will prevent “the whole earth [from being] smitten with a curse” (D&C 110:15) when He returns again. This is our duty and great blessing.

In the Church, indexed family history records make it easier for family history researchers to find information to submit for temple work, allowing temple ordinances to be performed in behalf of deceased ancestors who are waiting in spirit prison for the opportunity to accept the ordinances performed for them.

As those who are incarcerated at Utah State Prison index millions of names each year, many are finding that they, too, are reaping the blessings of service; behind prison walls, the Church’s indexing program is freeing both those for whom the work is being done and, in many ways, those doing the work—the inmates.

Indexing in Prison

The family history program has been present at Utah State Prison, in one form or another, for more than two decades. Beginning in January 2010, inmates moved from the old-fashioned extraction system—copying old records by hand onto cards—to the digital indexing program.

Today, four out of the six “units” that comprise the prison have family history centers. Shared among those prison units are 95 computers.

Inmates at each of the four facilities have the opportunity to participate for an hour at a time, multiple times a day, if they choose. Some spend up to eight hours a day, six days a week doing family history work. Each family history center is located within the unit. All but one have a chapel where the work can be done. Volunteers supervise each center.

Many are called from nearby Church units, but a substantial number volunteer. Directors, who are specifically called from surrounding stakes, oversee the efforts of the volunteers at each individual facility.

Brent Powell is a business analyst in the Church’s Family History Department who also volunteers 10-20 hours a week at the prison. He oversees the computer operations of the prison’s family history centers.

Brother Powell explained that because inmates are not allowed Internet access, a special process has been set up to get them access to batches of historical records, from which inmates can then extract information to provide searchable indexes.

First, volunteers download batches from onto a thumb drive. That information is then put on a server at the prison. Another volunteer takes the information from the server and disburses it to the four onsite family history centers. Inmates can then transfer the information from the historical records onto forms from the FamilySearch indexing program, which has been downloaded onto the computers. Once they finish the records assigned to them, the information is gathered by a volunteer, put onto the volunteer’s thumb drive, and transmitted to the Church Family History Department. Many inmates also work on their own PAFs, where users can enter names, dates, and other information into a database, and can then sort and search the genealogical data and print forms and charts.

Similar programs exist on a much smaller scale at correctional facilities in other parts of Utah and Idaho, USA, as well as in England. The instigation of the family history program within such facilities is ecclesiastically directed.

Blessings from Participation

Between 2003 and 2010 inmates at Utah State Prison indexed more than six million names.

During the first seven months of 2011 they donated nearly 35,000 hours, indexing 1.8 million names. It is estimated that by the end of the year the approximately 660 participating inmates will index a total of three million names.

According to Brother Powell, the program’s success is attributable to the fact that both the volunteers and the inmates are keenly aware of the temporal and spiritual blessings that come from participating in it.

“One of the neat things about the family history program is that it brings into focus the law of the Atonement, because you watch people change their lives,” Brother Powell said. “Most of them want to change, and it’s a joyful opportunity to know that you’re serving those individuals.”

Brother Powell, along with some 140 other family history volunteers at the prison, also finds his service an opportunity for his own testimony to grow. “You know that your time spent helping the inmates is appreciated,” he said.

Angie is one of those inmates who appreciates the program. Incarcerated at the women’s facility since 2007, she helps with orientation at the family history center. She teaches participants how to do family history, particularly indexing and creating PAFs.

“The average education level of women in the prison is junior high,” she said. “Through family history, the [women] are exposed to math, history, geography, reading, cursive, spelling, researching. We all sit together and work together to figure out letters. I see them teaching and caring for each other.”

On the other side of a fence, in the medium-security men’s facility (called “Oquirrh”), Terry sees similar outcomes.

“There are so many temporal benefits—they learn typing and working with computers. They learn to do something worthwhile. And I learn patience,” he said. “It keeps the inmates busy. It keeps them out of trouble, in a good environment. And it increases their self-worth.”

One woman at the prison had had no contact with her son for three years. But when she sent him some family history work she had compiled, the boy’s grandmother, his guardian, wrote back and granted the woman permission to contact her son regularly.

Another young woman who had had no contact with either parent for a long time received a package one day. An uncle she didn’t know existed from her father’s side of the family had heard she was in prison and sent her genealogical records.

“For most, family was a part of the problem that got them here,” Angie said. “Now they are finding part of the family that’s not a part of the problem. It gives them something to grasp on to.”

Many of the inmates participating at Oquirrh’s family history center are not LDS, but all can see the advantage of having records when they begin looking for their own family history.

“It gives a sense of belonging and achievement,” Terry said. “A lot of us don’t know much about our family—who they were and where they are, where they came from. Stories start coming out and they can see connections to their past. They are doing something beyond themselves.”

When an inmates leave, they have the option of taking with them a disc with all their family history work on it so they can continue doing it outside the prison.

Beyond Barbed Wire

In the last several months, participation in the family history program has grown.

“Firesides and other activities have raised awareness of the program,” Brother Powell said. “The Draper Utah Temple president came [to the prison] and explained the ‘why’ behind it—what happens after the indexing is done.”

“The family history room . . . opens the hearts of even the most hardened,” Angie said. “Sometimes, we feel like heaven is right there.”

Terry said he especially enjoys researching to find children who are missing from their families.

“It allows me to serve,” he said. “The chapel is the best place in the prison. I love seeing the Spirit come into the faces of people you never thought would get involved.”

Some of those people who never thought they’d be involved are the ones who return the most often, Angie said.

“There is a little glimmer of hope when we learn about these people we’re researching. Some of them had no job, made mistakes,” she said. “The [women] come to understand that no matter who we are or what we’ve done, God … loves us enough to … provide a way to peace and healing.”

As inmates come to understand more about the family history program and the Church’s doctrine concerning the family, many find greater purpose in what they’re doing and in their own lives.

“It has helped me to know I am still claimed by my Heavenly Father,” Angie said. “It gives me hope about the repentance process. I eat, sleep, and breathe hope that I can return home, that I can be rescued.”

And whether or not they are LDS, inmates who work in the family history centers at Utah State Prison are finding that—to one degree or another—they do feel rescued.