Starting a prison ministry: What some stakes are doing to help their local inmates

One Easter Sunday, Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles went to the Utah State Prison and met one-on-one with several inmates in maximum security. 

Elder Renlund recalled meeting with one young man who, 13 months earlier, had blamed a particular guard for some privileges that were taken away and attacked him. 

During the attack, two inmates who were former members of the Church jumped in and restrained the young man. Though his prison sentence was increased because of the altercation, it could have been more had those two men not restrained him. 

The young man told Elder Renlund during the visit that being restrained by those two men was the first time in his life anyone had been kind to him.

“Because of this one act of kindness, he asked to have a religious volunteer meet with him after he got out of solitary confinement,” Elder Renlund told the Church News. “He has been meeting regularly with one of our bishops for over a year.”

Lone Peak Correctional Facility, part of the Utah State Prison, in Draper, is pictured on Aug. 13, 2020.
Lone Peak Correctional Facility, part of the Utah State Prison, in Draper, is pictured on Aug. 13, 2020. Credit: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Just as the two inmates’ charitable action changed the young man’s heart, the Apostle said, “the lesson is that the Lord can use us wherever we are, if we allow Him, to bless the lives of others.”

God views those who are incarcerated as His beloved sons and daughters, with a divine nature and eternal destiny, who can be saved and exalted through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, Elder Renlund said. 

“They can progress as long as they are willing to repent, receive more light and knowledge, and be governed by law that preserves and sanctifies them,” he said, referencing Doctrine and Covenants 88:32-35.  

“Many have said that the Church is like a big hospital, and we are all sick in our own way. We come to Church to be helped and healed. 

“We should be thrilled when those who are incarcerated progress. We should still love them when they do not. We should pray for the kind of love that the Savior bestows on all who are His true disciples.”

Elder Dale G. Renlund is interviewed shortly after his call to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in October 2015. He is pictured with his wife, Sister Ruth Renlund. Elder Renlund recently spoke to the Church News about ministering to those who are incarcerated.
Elder Dale G. Renlund is interviewed shortly after his call to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in October 2015. He is pictured with his wife, Sister Ruth Renlund. Elder Renlund recently spoke to the Church News about ministering to those who are incarcerated. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

This love and compassion for those affected by crime is what Doug Richens, Church manager of Prison Ministry, has seen in recent weeks as the February Liahona magazine published several articles on how the gospel blesses the lives of incarcerated members. 

Many around the world have reached out wanting to know how they can get involved — including stakes in Alabama and Illinois that have now begun prison ministries in their areas. 

Understanding incarceration

Nearly 2.3 million individuals are currently serving time in jails or prisons in the United States, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Globally, that number is more than 10 million. 

“Every home has a touch point somewhere with this,” Richens said. “Every stake and every ward has someone recently released coming in or an offender recently incarcerated — it’s much, much more common than we recognize.” 

As Richens has met with inmates in more than 100 jails and prisons, he said he has learned that “the line between those who are incarcerated and those who are not is often very, very thin.

“The mistakes made sometimes are egregious and horrible. But in many cases, the mistakes made that led to incarceration weren’t as far away from the mistakes we make in everyday life.”

Read more: A message of hope for those who are incarcerated

Many might think most of those who are incarcerated are “hardened criminals,” Richens said, “and that’s not the case. Most need treatment. They have addictions, drug addiction, sex addictions. Mental illness is so prevalent.” 

And the majority of all adults in custody will be released at some point, he added. “We have the opportunity to help them prepare and achieve a better life as we minister in kindness and reserve judgment — it’s a beautiful thing.”

Richens said he wants Church members to know that “the Atonement of Jesus Christ and the influence of the Holy Ghost are penetrating prison walls and blessing God’s children. … 

“The Lord is ministering through a lot of means to bring light into these dark places.”

Ministering to those who are incarcerated has not stopped with the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, videoconferencing has allowed for more frequent contact between inmates and their families, he said. Many serving in prison ministries having been using videoconference to communicate with inmates as well.

‘Not forgotten to the Lord’

A few months ago, Gadsden Alabama Stake President Jeffrey A. Cote received an email from a senior missionary serving in Prison Ministry at Church headquarters. A young man at a county jail in his stake had written a letter to the Church, asking for a copy of the standard works. 

In the email to President Cote was a copy of the letter. “I read that, and I was touched by that,” he said. 

“It broke my heart that this young man had to write a letter to Church headquarters 1,800 miles away in search of the things that he was asking for. And it informed me that we didn’t have the tools and the mechanism in place for ministering to this segment of our population.”

President Cote said he was reminded of a passage in the New Testament: “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat … I was in prison, and ye came unto me” (Matthew 25:31-40). 

“I thought, we as members of the Church do a really good job of feeding the hungry, ministering to the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting and blessing the sick. But what about the prisoner? …

“It’s a population that is easily forgotten. And they’re not forgotten unto the Lord.”

Read more: How my husband’s incarceration affected our family

In January, President Cote and his counselors reached out to Richens and began the process of creating a stake prison ministry group. They called three couples to serve. 

“We’ve been sustaining these good people in units all across the stake, and it has generated a tremendous amount of interest among members.”

First, the couples are taking an inventory of all the correctional facilities in their stake boundaries and trying to make contact with them. “They’re developing relationships as we speak with prison officials, chaplains,” President Cote said.  

They are also learning the procedures and “laying the groundwork” for gaining access to the facilities. 

“Ideally, we want to preach the gospel,” said the stake president. “We want to teach the Atonement of Jesus Christ. We want to teach the plan of salvation. Where we can do that, we’ll do that.”

An inmate greets members who attend their church service meeting. (This photo was taken before COVID-19 restrictions.)
An inmate greets members who attend their church service meeting. (This photo was taken before COVID-19 restrictions.) Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Ministering tools they have in mind include family history, the Church’s Self-Reliance Services and “Come, Follow Me” gospel study. “We’ll rely on prison administrators and chaplains and ask them what they think their needs are, and we will try to meet some of their needs. … Ultimately, we’re interested in providing worship services.”

Getting their stake prison ministry going will take time, he said, but “we are absolutely convinced that this effort will yield a great harvest. … 

“We may never know, in this life, the effect for good that it will have in the lives of family members and others who these presently incarcerated persons will make contact with and influence.”

President Cote added: “I don’t ever want somebody to have to write a letter to Church headquarters 1,800 miles away because I was not in that prison, I was not doing my part. The Savior said, ‘I was imprisoned and ye came unto me.’ We want our ministry to be a fulfillment of His injunction.”

‘Their direction is still the same’

For Buffalo Grove Illinois Stake President Eric L. Cieslak, the interest in starting a stake prison ministry was prompted by one of his counselors, Blair K. Holbrook. 

When President Holbrook read the recent Liahona articles on incarceration, he immediately thought of his parents’ experience serving in a prison ministry — and asked his fellow stake presidency members what they thought about starting one. They eagerly supported the idea. 

“Our focus is around trying to make sure that if there’s an opportunity to help somebody get closer to the Savior, we want to pursue that opportunity, no matter where they’re located,” President Cieslak said. 

His stake boundaries include Lake and McHenry counties, northwest of Chicago. The presidency is already aware of a few jails and prisons in their area. 

The immediate plan is to find the right couples and “start to empower them to do what we need to do to take care of these folks,” President Cieslak said. 

“We’re still very much at the beginning of this journey,” he acknowledged, “so we’re learning as we go.”

In this Jan. 30, 2018, photo, inmates walk across the grounds of the Idaho State Correctional Institution in Kuna, Idaho.
In this Jan. 30, 2018, photo, inmates walk across the grounds of the Idaho State Correctional Institution in Kuna, Idaho. Credit: Rebecca Boone, Associated Press

Ministering to those affected by crime hits home for President Cieslak, as he personally knows someone who was incarcerated and is working on the way back to “the covenant path.” 

“It’s such a personal journey for everybody,” he said. “I think a lot of times we try to box in progress on the covenant path into this formulaic approach. Everybody’s return back to their Father in Heaven has a distinctly unique flavor to it.”

And he’s seen firsthand that Heavenly Father is a “very, very kind, loving Father.”

“For these folks that are incarcerated, made poor decisions, they have a different route that they’re going, but their direction is still the same — which is trying to get back to the Savior,” President Cieslak said. 

Starting a prison ministry

For Latter-day Saints interested in starting a prison ministry in their area, Richens suggested the following:

  • A prison ministry is a stake program and falls under the direction of the stake president.
  • Stake presidents may organize a prison ministry group by calling two or three couples to serve.
  • Identify prisons and jails within the stake’s boundaries and build relationships with prison chaplains. 
  • Find those who are seeking the gospel and provide ongoing ministering support.

To learn more about the responsibilities of those called in the Church’s prison ministry system, read the Gospel Topic on Prison Ministry or visit Providing Support for Those in Correctional Facilities. For additional information about the Prison Ministry group and how to help, email [email protected]