UTAH STATE PRISON — In a cramped room here in the Wasatch medium-security unit, inmates sit hunched over computers, trying to decipher the aged writings of people long dead.
Some scroll through reels of microfilm, searching for a name that can help unlock the secrets of the past.
They are among hundreds of inmates doing genealogical work in family-history centers run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints inside the prison.
"The genealogical program here is a haven to get away from the environment within the prison itself," inmate Dan Maroney said. "It's a place for fellowship."
There are four family-history centers in the prison, with about 600 inmates doing work on their own genealogies or performing extractions — the indexing of names of long-dead individuals from land records, census forms, birth, death and marriage certificates for a database run by the LDS Church's Family History Library.
Prison-wide, the inmates extract about 500,000 to 1 million names per year for genealogists worldwide to use.
"One thing about the prison is we've got sort of a captive audience," joked Keith Jepsen, coordinator of the prison's family-history centers. "One thing that most of the men out here have is time, so it's a win-win program for everybody."
Inmate Steve Deeter sits at a computer where a woman's name is displayed on the screen, the cursive script magnified. He's double-checking to make sure a name extracted is accurate.
"I'm getting to pay back society through this service work that I'm doing right here, that's what I like," he said. "I've done a lot of my own personal genealogy, and somebody had to do exactly the same thing I'm doing so I could get those records, so that's what I'm doing, too. It's a 'pay it forward' thing."
The family-history centers are open seven days a week, and inmates can participate as much as they want. The inmates' convictions range from drugs, theft and sex offenses to murder. The centers are funded by the church and staffed by LDS missionaries like Gordon and Gayle Fletcher.
"You start to have a love for the inmates. You don't think you're ever going to," Gayle Fletcher said. "As you work with them, you learn to love them, and you just want the best for them."
Maroney spends eight hours a day at the center, researching his family history and helping other inmates write letters to genealogists and historical societies on the outside, sleuthing information that helps them trace their roots. Because of his skills, Maroney said, he has been offered a job on a trial basis with a professional genealogist when he is released in 2010.
"Genealogy has put me in touch with those who went before me," he said.
Because they are in a prison, the family-history centers here are not like those on the outside run by the LDS Church. Internet access is very limited, and names for extraction work are those of people who have been dead for decades, to guard against identity theft.
"It does hamper the work a bit," Jepsen said. "It's hard for the men to do some of the research, but it's better than nothing. We work with what we've got."
But the excitement is evident as these men, some who appear to be hardened criminals, break down in tears upon finding a long-lost family member or having a "Eureka!" moment upon discovering a missing branch in their family trees.
"Some of these names can be tricky to find," said inmate Dale Labrum, head clerk at the South Point Family History Center inside the Wasatch facility. "To me the challenge is trying to figure out how to find these individuals or find out where they went."
The genealogy work many inmates do has even led to reconciliations within their own families.
"In a lot of cases, they come out to prison, and they've done some pretty bad things and the family cuts them off," Jepsen said. "But as these men start to do family history work, these bridges start to get mended again."
One of the prison genealogists' biggest undertakings included the Freedman's Bank Project, a list of names of post-Civil War slaves. It took them about eight years to complete, but it benefits other genealogists worldwide.
"It was a huge undertaking," Labrum said.
Maroney pulls out a letter from the Rhode Island Historical Society, which helped him track down a record of his great-grandmother, who abandoned his grandmother as a baby after she was born in 1897. He shuts his eyes as tears well up.31 comments on this story
"I get all teary because I've been looking for this lady for 30 years," he said.
The thrill of the discovery only leaves Maroney with more questions. Why was his grandmother given up? He may never know.
"I piece together this mystery of her life, and as I record it into her files and have shared it with other family members, I've been able to show that maybe some of the trials and tribulations I'm going through now aren't nearly as tough," he said. "Prison's a piece of cake compared to what my grandmother went through."