Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Utah State Prison in Draper on Thursday, June 11, 2015.

DRAPER — Utah's rate of voluntarism is the highest in the nation, and that apparently extends to the number of individuals that serve as mentors, trainers or religious volunteers within the walls of the Utah State Prison.

The 1,200 volunteers that serve in the Draper facility are a key reason — and the most persuasive one — for doing everything possible to keep a new prison as close as possible to the current one.

"You just don't see numbers anywhere near what you see in Utah," said Brad Sassatelli, a former warden at three different prisons in Illinois and now a corrections consultant working for Utah's Prison Relocation Commission.

The federal government's National Institute for Corrections doesn't appear to have any state-by-state comparisons of volunteers. But Sassatelli said that a typical facility outside of Utah might have 100 to 200 volunteers. Of those, maybe 30 will regularly come to the prison, while the rest might visit once or twice a year.

Even accounting for the large size of the Draper prison — with 4,000 inmates, it is more than twice the size of an average state prison — the number of volunteers is exceptional. Consider further than many of those 1,200 volunteers visit the facility on a biweekly basis.

"Contact with people from the outside is a strong morale-booster, and keeps a realistic perspective" for inmates, says Cherry Silver, who has volunteered with her husband Barnard at the Draper prison for several years.

The Silvers began serving when they were asked by the leaders of their Latter-day Saint congregation to run a "Family Home Evening" group at the prison on Monday evening. They've also participated in worship services for prisoners, including services for individuals of other faiths, including Catholics, evangelicals and Muslims.

Volunteers operate within strict guidelines set by the Utah Department of Corrections. These include rules against revealing personal information or against taking anything out or bringing anything into the prison — even cookies.

They also agree not to have contact with the families of inmates, or with former inmates: "There are others who help them on the outside. We help them on the inside,” she says.

"Lately we have been talking about how to handle conflict," she says. "We may read a passage from the New Testament about love your enemies, and how to apply that to their own situation."

She and other volunteers interviewed for this column called their service in the prison extremely rewarding. "There are always prayers of gratitude for the volunteers. And they don't have to look as if they are all put together; they are willing to talk about mistakes, changes, what has built them, what are the hard problems in their life, and how they are facing them."

Although volunteering is rewarding, relocation to a distant site, including those being considered in Tooele County or beyond Eagle Mountain in Utah County, might dramatically decrease the number of willing volunteers, she says.

Don Wright shares that worry. He began his association in the Family History Library here. Observing the great need for education among inmates, Wright went on to start the PrisonEd Foundation, which offers educational books and instructional material.

Regarding the possibility of relocation, Wright says that "the highest priority is that the prison does need to be easily accessible to volunteers." At the same time, the current prison is very limited in being able to offer classes and training. Whether with a new prison elsewhere, or if still in Draper, "they absolutely do need to do some rebuilding, at least to make classrooms available for education."

"There are huge numbers of people here who are desperate in wanting to use their time in improving their lives and becoming better people," says Wright. "The old mentality of 'lock ’em up and throw away the keys' is insane."

As an example of the type of training launched here this past year, the Department of Corrections points to a female and a male offender transition initiative. It provides basic "life skills" on employment, transportation, housing, education and child-rearing to inmates six months prior to their release.

Although constrained by their current facility, "Our vision is that we actually start, from the very beginning when they get into prison, getting them thinking about getting out of prison," says Capt. Bryan Taylor, who oversees the program. "A new facility would only enhance what we can do."

But at what cost in volunteer resources would a new prison come, if relocated far from the population center of the Salt Lake and Utah valleys?

"Parts of the prison are up-to-date and should be used along with the [multi-denominational] chapel as the start of a new prison on site," says Barnard Silver. He calls the chapel here "the principal center for building good character and insightful reflection on life."

Next week: The dollars, and sense, of relocating the prison from Draper.

Drew Clark can be reached via email: drew@drewclark.com, or on Twitter @drewclark, or at www.utahbreakfast.com.