When the Prophet Spencer W. Kimball and I walked into the Utah State Prison, the sound of sliding, electronically controlled cell doors could be heard clanging in the background. The grating sounds of the steel bars against the concrete floors and walls let me know where I was again. Once past the admittance door, we were greeted by Warden Larry and Deputy Warden Ken Shulsen. As they escorted us to the warden’s office located near the front of the medium security area, I still had some anxieties about our visit. I hoped conditions would be completely under control, with no disturbances possible. There must not be any interference or interruption during the visit of the prophet. I was responsible for this trip, and as we entered, this weighed heavily upon me. Fortunately, conditions were ideally calm and quiet in and around the warden’s office. To my great relief, the grapevine means of communication inside the prison had apparently not learned of the President’s coming.
What had attracted President Kimball to the prison? Why was he here? What was his special interest? Was there a certain inmate he wanted to see?
Almost 11 years ago when President Spencer W. Kimball, President N. Eldon Tanner, and President Marion G. Romney held different Church positions than they do today, they played an important role in the establishment of the Unified Social Service system. This agency was created to place under one program and leader all of the related social services departments. Included were the Indian student placement program, adoptions, detained youth, prisoners, drug addicts, unwed mothers, and foster-care children, alcoholics, the emotionally distressed, and others. These areas of concern and interest are presently an important part of the Church’s total Welfare Services program.
When I was called at the outset to direct this department, I found it to be most challenging and stimulating. To work full time with those with social and emotional problems was a new era of personal service for me.
Besides his continuing extreme interest in the Indian student placement service, President Kimball, then a member of the Council of the Twelve, continually expressed his concern in our relationships with prisoners. He was anxious for us to do more in assisting them in their rehabilitation processes both while they were still confined in prison and also after their release. It was under his encouragement that the present, very successful family home evening program at the Utah State Prison was started. Regular Sunday worship services and week-time activities of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continue beneficially in the institution today, thanks to his total endorsement and assistance. Similar programs have been made available to LDS and other inmates in prisons in the United States and in the world. Great amounts of good have been and continue to be accomplished in improved lives and conduct.
It seems to me that during the time I directed the prison program for the Church and later when I was called to the Quorum of the Twelve, which necessitated giving up my direct relationship with the department, President Kimball continually wanted to go to the prison with me to visit. Because some inmates at the prison are unpredictable, I always discouraged President Kimball from going there to visit. I was grateful that he always respected my judgment in regard to his safety and well-being and did not insist he go to the prison over my protest.
Early in March of this year, with the prison’s interdenominational chapel well under construction, the thought came to me that that was the right time to take President Kimball to the prison for his long-awaited visit. He could visit on the outside without undue concern over dangers within the prison walls. I asked him if he would like to go the morning of March 10 to see the new chapel, the wardens, and some inmates. He was delighted with the invitation and cleared his heavy schedule to make the 20-mile trip from the Church Administration Building. As we rode together in the car, President Kimball’s questions about prison facilities, the chapel, the guards, the wardens, and the general atmosphere at the institution were rapid and pointed.
After a short visit with the prison administrators, at President Kimball’s encouragement two prisoners were brought in for interview. They were moved by President Kimball’s warmth and friendliness. “Where is your home?” “What are your special jobs here?” “Are you working on the construction of the new chapel?” These were some of his questions—all of which were free of criticism or embarrassment. He let them and others know immediately he was there because he cares.
With this short visit over, we were to make our way to the chapel. When asked if he wanted to ride or walk the two-block distance, President Kimball responded with “I would like to walk.” With the wardens, the two prisoners, and a few others of us, we walked in the 10:00 A.M., 40-degree temperature into the minimum security facilities where the new chapel was being constructed. For security reasons, only the wardens knew of our visit plans, so when we arrived in the visiting area adjoining the chapel, the presence of President Kimball surprised not only the media, but Utah’s Governor Scott M. Matheson and Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson as well as other committee members who had been invited there for a review of chapel construction progress.
The highlight of the inspection tour came after brief remarks by President Kimball which included, “This facility will help prisoners find their way back.” Two inmates were invited to stand at the side of the prophet for pictures. As he shook their hands warmly and later put his arms around them, he said, “It is an honor for me to have my picture taken with you.” They were obviously touched by the comment. Others of us again saw the greatness and stature of the one we loved so much. Respect and human dignity were witnessed. He is the foe of sin, but the friend of the sinner. The scripture found in Doctrine and Covenants 50:26 came forcefully to my mind: “He that is ordained of God and sent forth, the same is appointed to be the greatest, notwithstanding he is the least and the servant of all.” [D&C 50:26]
Impressive also was President Kimball’s public statement regarding the interdenominational chapel, which included, “The Church is happy to be a participant in any and all community projects that are worthy.”
One inmate rushed up to me as we were leaving and said, “I didn’t get a chance to shake President Kimball’s hand, but would you please tell him we love him?”
As we walked back to the car to return to Salt Lake City, this choice experience with the prophet brought to mind the writing of Parley P. Pratt when he and the Prophet Joseph Smith were in a prison together in Richmond, Missouri. The situation was much different, but the same witness of true dignity and majesty was enjoyed. I, too, saw true majesty when a prison visitor performed and spoke under God’s authority.
During the tour of the new chapel and the walk between the buildings, Warden Morris and Deputy Warden Shulsen were always nearby to assist and respond to President Kimball’s questions. After hearing President Kimball refer to me a number of times as “Marv,” Warden Shulsen was impressed to say, “Isn’t it kind of neat to have President Kimball call you ‘Marv?’” I responded with, “Yes, it is, and it is especially neat to know President Spencer W. Kimball is a prophet of God.” I had again seen him in action.
I am glad the time and conditions were right for President Kimball to visit two of his friends in prison, one a member and one a nonmember. As they stood with him for their picture to be taken, President Kimball had on one side a prisoner serving time for theft and burglary and on the other a man in prison for manslaughter. His greeting during the handshake, “It is an honor for me to have my picture taken with you,” rings in my ears. “I was in prison and ye came unto me.”