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Church brings hope to prison inmates

It has many of the characteristics of a typical ward fast and testimony meeting - except for a couple of obvious differences. The congregation is all male, and most of those in attendance wear jeans and blue work shirts bearing stenciled numbers.

The location is the Utah State Prison, and reverence pervades the non-denominational chapel.The sacrament and other ordinances are absent from the meeting because most of those in attendance have been disfellowshipped or excommunicated. For that reason, it is considered a worship service instead of a fast and testimony meeting. On other weeks, guest speakers from area stakes provide talks and musical numbers.

"I feel I am the freest man on the face of the earth," an inmate says softly from the pulpit. "I've learned a great thing: freedom is not a place; it is a condition of mind, heart and will. Freedom is knowing who you are, what you are, and where you came from. And freedom is having the determination of where you are going."

There are no gaps in the proceedings; the men seem eager to share their feelings, and hungry for spiritual nourishment.

One man says he keeps a picture of his family inside his copy of the scriptures to give him the incentive to read them every night. From the Book of Mormon, he cites Alma 7:23 about the need to be humble, submissive, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of patience and long-suffering, temperate, and diligent in keeping God's commandments. He expresses his assurance that God lives, and that Jesus Christ is the Savior of mankind.

Another man refers to Alma 37:6, which states that "by small and simple things are great things brought to pass."

"If we read the Book of Mormon every day as our prophet has counseled us to do, it will bring such a strength into our lives," he affirms. He adds that such strength also comes from seemingly small means like praying regularly, "no matter how unworthy you feel" and regardless of the difficulty in finding privacy in the prison to pray.

As the time wanes, Ruffin Bridgeforth, bishop's counselor, concludes the meeting and counsels the inmates to communicate regularly with their Father in Heaven during the coming week.

"He needs to hear from you, because He loves you," he says.

An inmate accompanies at the piano as the congregation sings Hymn 138, "Testimony."Brother Bridgeforth (one of the first black Church members to be ordained to the priesthood after the 1978 revelation) is one of more than 200 priesthood holders who contribute their time and effort to staff the Church programs at the prison, under the administration of the Draper Utah Stake.

The branch at the prison was recently divided to form the Draper Southpoint and Northpoint branches. Bishops Noel H. Ennis and Marvell Jones preside. Having a bishop instead of branch president gives more of a feeling of permanancy, according to Elder John K. Carmack of the Seventy and president of the Utah Central Area.

The bishops each have more than two counselors, with each counselor responsible for a section of the prison, including women's and young adult facilities. Each counselor has charge over counseling specialists who spend about 50 hours a month working directly with inmates, providing encouragement, spiritual direction, and occasionally, priesthood blessings, according to Raul Alva, a bishop's counselor.

Sunday School classes are taught in gospel doctrine, gospel essentials and family history. Relief Society is held in the women's facility. A family history library is available and enthusiastically utilized by many of the inmates.

Daily institute of religion classes are taught through the Church Educational System. Recently, 249 inmates were awarded certificates of achievement for having completed course work.

Talented volunteers play an important part in weekly activity nights, performing for the inmates.

Through at least 75 percent attendance at Church services and activities over four months, inmates earn the privilege to participate in the family home evening program.

Begun in 1967 by Heber J. Geurts, the family home evening program has attracted nationwide media attention for its success. It was an outgrowth of the time Brother Geurts spent at the prison as a bishop counseling two men from his ward who were incarcerated.

The family home evening program became a foundation on which was built the entire Church organization at the prison, which has proven its success in a recidivism rate among participants that is about half the 55 percent in the general prison population, according to Roland Vance, bishop's counselor.

"Over the years, I've seen 30 men turn their lives around and go to the temple," said Brother Geurtz, who still leads the home evening program.

Often, tender relationships develop between inmates and members of participating families, as with Brother Vance's 6-year-old son, Richard, and inmate Ralph Price Jr., a handsome, former college football player and high school student body officer. At a recent home evening, Richard sat on his friend's lap throughout the lesson.

"Richard, about three weeks ago, was making such a fuss about my having tobacco on my breath," Price said during the home evening. "God works in mysterious ways, and just from him bringing it up, it has been four days since I quit smoking. Today, I told him, I got a present for you.' And he said,Oh yes, it smells good!' "

Sometimes, when feasible, an inmate's own family comes to be with him during the monthly home evenings. Bishop Lyle S Heinz of the Price 7th Ward provides transportation each month for the wife, son and daughters of inmate Fredrick G. Olsen.

The Olsens' home evening is quieter and more subdued than most. On a recent occasion, the family simply held hands while their husband and father expressed his love and admiration for each of them.

"I want you to know God will continue to support us as He has done through all of this," he said. "I appreciate these hands I hold, and I appreciate my sweetheart very much."

It is ironic, Bishop Ennis pointed out, that inmates often find an environment in prison that is more conducive to spirituality than the pressures and problems faced on the outside.

"So many times, we get the inmates built up spiritually like they've never been built up before, and when they come out, they drop into what we call a spiritual vacuum," he explained.

A "bridging committee" is appointed to help an inmate, who has been active in Church functions at prison, bridge the gap between prison and life on the outside by helping with employment, housing and activity in the inmate's home ward or branch.

Bishop Ennis said he has authority to hear confessions from inmates. "I see them later, and they say, `I have never felt better in all my life.' Even in prison, they say this."

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