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.

"He'd tell us to put our hands on the Bible and swear (we were telling the truth)," Brown said. "But if you don't understand what the Bible is, it's easy to lie."

As an adult, Brown saw Sunday as a "play day" to take her three children to Bear Lake. But in prison, church was the only place with answers, and Brown spent every free minute in the chapel, attending classes and peppering the Warrens and her roommate Adams with questions.

Unlike Brown, Adams had known about God, prayer and scriptures her entire life. Yet she left them behind after she got tangled in drugs and ended up in prison, where she too experienced a change of heart.

"(Deb) was really good for me," Adams said with tears in her eyes. "Who she was trying to be was who I was trying to be — a better person."

Serving in prison

When Chaplain Mary Challier teaches the Parable of the Prodigal Son, she calls it the Parable of the Loving Father.

She makes the scriptural account a play and gives each student a role. There are no costumes and only the cinderblock backdrop of a jail classroom, but the message is powerful.

After the prisoners act out the parable, Challier explores the messages of love, forgiveness and repentance, then the inmates act it out again.

"The most fulfilling part is probably what I call the 'aha' moment," Challier said. "They finally make a personal connection and they get it."

Challier, a born-again Christian missionary, has taught in the Salt Lake County Jail for six years through the national non-profit Good News Jail & Prison Ministries. Her work is an act of love, but it's also part of a legal requirement.

The U.S. Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act forbids prisons from placing burdens on an inmate's right to worship, which means that as much as possible, prisons must provide religious leaders and let inmates observe rites and rituals, whether it's Bible study, Catholic mass or Bhakti yoga class.

Hare Krishna priest Sri Hanuman Das goes several times a week to the Utah State Prison for his yoga program where nearly 50 inmates focus their energies and control their senses to develop deeper spirituality.

"(Our) philosophy isn't about changing a person's religion," Das says, "It's about having a relationship with God."

There are 27 religions represented in the Draper prison served by nearly 1,800 volunteers who come in monthly, weekly or daily, said Bob Feland, one of the prison's four part-time, non-denominational chaplains.

"I've grown to love the volunteers in prison," Feland said. "(They are) striving to touch the lives of others."

But there could always be more.

"For religion in prison to continue ... volunteers are imperative," said Harry Dammer, chair of the criminal justice department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.

"The larger the program the more important the volunteers. After all, it makes sense. Visiting people in prison is part of the whole deal. That's literally in the Bible, it's part of the religious doctrine to help people in prison."

Keeping faith alive

When Brown left prison on a rainy March day, she walked into the arms of her loving family, supportive legal team and devoted friends like Adams, who celebrated the judge's decision granting her appeal of factual innocence.

Brown now works for an understanding boss, faithfully attends her local LDS congregation and is catching up with her seven grandchildren.

Not all ex-prisoners are so lucky.

Many have burned bridges to family and friends and still struggle with bad habits that led to prison in the first place.

Although they took the important first step of faith, without help from faith-based ministries outside of prison "it will be difficult for new converts to transition successfully back to society," wrote Baylor professor Byron Johnson and author of "More God, Less Crime: Why Faith Matters and How it Could Matter More." "Religious conversion is not synonymous with spiritual transformation. The latter is an ongoing process that, unfortunately, often tends to stall once inmates leave prison."

Not because the inmates aren't converted, says Britta Schumacher, a German sociologist who studies American prison ministries, but because as soon as they're out, they meet old friends and old habits that often lead back to prison.

"Whether they can break out of this cycle often depends on how radically they cut themselves off from their old surroundings and neighborhoods," she said.

The new LDS Transition Service Offices now can help by offering ex-inmates, within hours of release, temporary housing vouchers, food, clothes and help finding their local ecclesiastical leader.

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"The leader can help him with employment, make sure he has the necessities of life, as well as welcome him back into the church community," said Wayne Parker, regional director of LDS Correctional Services.

And being welcomed back into a community is just as important as food and shelter, experts say, though it requires faith and forgiveness on the community's part.

"We've all done something we're guilty of, (prisoners) just got caught," said New Pilgrim's Hawkins. "We shouldn't look at a person (only focusing on) the crime they committed. We should look at them as Christ would look at us."

email: sisraelsen@desnews.com