Religion: a powerful tool for those serving time in jail or prison

Published: Saturday, Oct. 29 2011 9:00 a.m. MDT

Alana Williams and her mother, Debra Brown, get emotional during a press conference after Brown's release from prison. Brown's seeds of faith were rediscovered thanks to faith-based classes, religious volunteers and even the example of her cellmate.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

HEBER — The first time Debra Brown prayed she knelt down on a cement floor in a jail cell, clumsily folded her arms and copied the words of her roommate who daily prayed for her children, grandchildren and God's forgiveness.

The first of what would be many prayers in the Wasatch County Jail was done a bit grudgingly, Brown admits, because her roommate Cheryl Adams was so pleasantly insistent.

"I was faking it with her, but before long, it's like being a farmer," Brown said. "You know what happens when you plant seeds. Stuff starts growing whether you like it or not. The more I knew, the more things started to resonate. The more I learned, the more I knew I was getting on the right track."

For many prisoners like Brown, the "right track" begins with seeds of faith, discovered or rediscovered while they are incarcerated, thanks to faith-based classes, religious volunteers and even the example of cellmates.

While some may discount "jailhouse religion," experts say conversion does happen behind bars, and faith-based programs can be some of the most effective tools to help individuals reshape their paradigms and refocus their lives.

Yet experts say the work of dedicated prison chaplains and devoted jail volunteers alone is not enough. Without a support network on the outside, converted prisoners often lack the skills, resources and encouragement to keep going.

To begin such a network, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently opened five Transition Service Offices throughout the state of Utah, offering connections and commodities to parolees with the ultimate goal of keeping them out of prison — a goal shared by numerous churches.

"We partner up with (the LDS Church) on a lot of things," says Robert Hawkins, associate pastor at New Pilgrim Baptist Church. "We're two different organizations but...I don't think it's about religions, it's about relationships with God. We have to stay connected, unified...on our common goal of reducing the recidivism rate in the state of Utah."

A change of heart

The first time Brown shuffled into the Sunday School class at the jail, which also houses federal and state prison inmates, her expression was as drab as her prison clothing.

She sat through the lecture but "she wasn't really into it," said Carl Warren, a member of the LDS church who taught the class with his wife, Laura, as their official church assignment. "A lot (of prisoners) came because it was an hour out of their cells."

And after the class, Brown trudged back to her room to nurse her anger.

If God was good and kind, like the Warrens said, Brown wondered why he had let her be wrongfully convicted, stripped from her young children and left to rot in a prison cell.

When she met the Warrens, Brown had already served almost five years of a life sentence with the possibility of parole for murdering her boss, Lael Brown (no relation), though she consistently maintained her innocence.

Her bitterness continued until one day she looked in the mirror and didn't recognize her hateful face.

"That's when it hit me, 'Deb, you've got a choice here,'" she remembers thinking. "'How are you going to deal with this? You can head the direction you've been and be miserable, or you can turn this thing around... and get something out of it.'"

From then on she went to class each Sunday with a smile, neatly combed hair and questions. She wanted to know more about God, whom she'd had little introduction to while growing up.

Brown's mother brushed off church with the excuse that she didn't have a dress. Her father only picked up the Bible was when he suspected the kids were lying to him.

Try out the new DeseretNews.com design!
try beta learn more
Get The Deseret News Everywhere