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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
An inmate pursues a genealogy search at the family history center at the Utah State Prison in Draper.

SALT LAKE CITY — Brent Scharman felt no fear as he spoke with the death row prisoner.

The condemned inmate was in hand and ankle cuffs and a one-way glass wall separated the two, but those barriers didn't prevent the two from having a friendly and meaningful conversation.

"We talked about life," said Scharman, who has served as a priesthood leader in correctional facilities for many years. "The discussion was very spiritual in nature."

Scharman is one of numerous members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who reach out to the incarcerated members of the church who request their help. It's an effort to follow the Savior's counsel to reach out to those suffering in jail: "I was in prison and ye came unto me" (Matthew 25:36).

The cozy room of correspondence

Elder Bill and Sister Louise Wilhite have been working as church service missionaries in the Correctional Services segment of Welfare Services for 10 years.

Every Friday they read and respond to letters from prisoners around the country. Most letters are addressed to President Thomas S. Monson.

The Wilhites and other missionary couples spend hours in a cozy office room lined with shelves of scriptures, church manuals and other gospel literature in an effort to meet the inmates' requests.

"Our primary purpose is to provide church materials to these individuals. The second thing we do is try to get a priesthood interview to them. If possible, we look to begin services through the local church unit," Bill Wilhite said.

He said there are a million different scenarios that most correctional facilities accommodate, but there are also numerous restrictions and hoops to jump through.

"For the most part we have been pretty successful at opening the door to LDS services. It's a matter of time and patience."

In addition to sending church materials, the couples do their best to offer encouragement and bear testimony of the power of the atonement.

Many are shocked when they find out what the Wilhites do each Friday, but the couple from Cedar Hills say it blesses their lives.

"We try to make them feel better about their circumstances and tell them the Lord loves them," Wilhite said. "It is indeed for us, a spiritual experience."

Worshipping behind bars

When permitted by prisons and jails around the United States, the church will organize programs and services on location for inmates. These may include worship services with prayers, hymns, talks, fast and testimony meetings, Sunday School classes, priesthood and Relief Society lessons. The sacrament is not administered.

These programs are attended by LDS inmates as well as those of other faiths. Occasionally a conversion takes place.

In some cases a branch is organized and presided over by members called from local church units. These leaders counsel inmates, give priesthood blessings and fulfill other responsibilities with their callings.

"It's a pretty tough setting. The inmates don't want to show a ton of emotion," Scharman said. "But there are spiritual talks and testimonies, the ward choirs are good. You can see and hear a lot of spiritual things.

"There is no barrier to what they (inmates) can participate in. It means a lot to them, it's a big deal," said Scharman, who served as a bishop at one prison unit for more than three years. "When you ado interviews, you take a lot of confessions and meet with people trying to overcome addictions, similar to a regular bishop."

When members are asked to serve in a prison, they must be oriented and cleared with background checks. They are taught how not to be manipulated by prisoners. At first they are generally nervous, Scharman said.

"People go in not knowing what to expect. They are initially intimidated and scared or uncomfortable. But prisoners are on their best behavior because they don't want this privilege cut off," Scharman said. "They (the called members) consistently have spiritual experiences."

Teamwork

The central part of the mission at the Utah Department of Corrections involves helping offenders to rehabilitate and effect positive change in themselves so they can eventually return to the community successfully and not reoffend or create a new victim in the community.

Steve Gehrke, public information officer at the Utah Department of Corrections, said there are more than 1,100 volunteers who offer a wide array of services in the prison system at any given time at the Draper and Gunnison prison sites. Not all of them are LDS or religious volunteers. Some deal in education and other aspects, but the bulk deal with religious services.

The corrections department allows the LDS Church to hold worship services, firesides, institute, family history and genealogy research classes, addiction recovery programs, activity nights and family home evenings.

"Any time offenders have the opportunity to do something productive and meaningful with their (the prisoners') day — whether it be from a recreational, educational, work, volunteer, programming or religious standpoint — that tends to encourage them to gravitate toward positive change," Gehrke said. "These services provided by the LDS Church, as well as members of various other denominations actively volunteering here at the Utah State Prison facilities, contribute toward helping the department achieve this goal. We are mindful of their services, and we are grateful for the opportunities they offer to the inmate population. Many of the inmates participate in these uplifting opportunities, and they constantly express appreciation to department staff and directly to those volunteers who provide these meaningful services."

The prisoners' perspective

One inmate at the Utah State Prison, who asked to be identified only as "Coach," described a fast and testimony meeting in a letter.

When the announcement is made over the loudspeaker, 90 or so inmates who have been properly cleared walk a quarter mile and line up at the door to the prison chapel. They are greeted by reverent organ music.

When the meeting and testimonies begin, the seats on the stand are filled. There are no travelogues, Coach said.

"These men are lawbreakers and most are sincerely seeking a closer relationship to the Savior. A large number are either ex-communicated members or long-time inactives. They have now found a second chance to learn and live church teachings," he said.

One prisoner has been married to his wife for 48 years. Since being incarcerated, he has not heard from her in more than six years. He tearfully requested thatother inmates join in a fast with him in hopes that her heart would be softened enough to write him a letter. The following Friday, the man received a letter from his wife.

"God hears and answers prayers, even to those in prison," Coach said. "The Lord loves his sons and daughters who have been incarcerated and the church has not forgotten those behind bars."

E-mail: [email protected]

More information

In collaboration with Welfare Services at church headquarters, LDS Family Services is responsible for materials and professional resources to assist those in correctional institutions and their families. For assistance, contact LDS Correctional Services at 800-453-3860, ext. 2-2644, or [email protected]

Priesthood leaders can also find information at LDS.org, clicking on "Serving in the Church," and choosing Melchizedek Priesthood. Select "Support for Those in Correctional Facilities" on the right side of the page. Additionally, information on the Correctional Services helpline is available in the Church Handbook of Instructions, Book 1.

Excerpts from LDS prisoners' letters at an Arizona correctional facility

"Perspective is one of my greatest realizations in my four years of prison. I have done a lot of judging others without walking in their shoes. I have a new appreciation of stumbling blocks. I am beginning to learn what it means to live with love in your heart for all men." (name withheld)

"Thanks to the Savior's atoning sacrifice, his loving kindness and his tender mercies, I eventually found forgiveness and peace … I have come to understand that through the infinite wisdom of my father in heaven, I have been given this opportunity to pay my debt owed to society and the victims — essential to my salvation … May we remember to pray without ceasing for the strength to flee from even the appearance of evil." (name withheld)

"Like King David, all of us in prison started down our paths to destruction from simply not being where we were supposed to be, then giving ourselves permission to stay a little longer, gazing at Bathsheba. (Name withheld)

"The spirit is really strong in our meetings. I think the reason is because we are all in dire need of the atonement and the feelings of the spirit." (Name withheld)

"The guilt at times is overbearing, very heavy, like the statue of Atlas with the burden of the world on his back. Through many hours of conversation with Heavenly Father, I have admitted all, but still, at times, feel terrible. It is easier to be forgiven and forgive others than it is to forgive myself...I know that only through the gospel will I achieve happiness and true joy." (Name withheld)

"Perspective is one of my greatest realizations in my four years of prison. I have done a lot of judging others without walking in their shoes. I have a new appreciation of stumbling blocks. I am beginning to learn what it means to live with love in your heart for all men."

—?Name withheldHeady

TextMore information

In collaboration with Welfare Services at church headquarters, LDS Family Services is responsible for materials and professional resources to assist those in correctional institutions and their families. For assistance, contact LDS Correctional Services at 800-453-3860, ext. 2-2644, or [email protected]

Priesthood leaders can also find information at LDS.org, clicking on "Serving in the Church," and choosing Melchizedek Priesthood. Select "Support for Those in Correctional Facilities" on the right side of the page. Additionally, information on the Correctional Services helpline is available in the Church Handbook of Instructions, Book 1.

"Thanks to the Savior's atoning sacrifice, his loving kindness and his tender mercies, I eventually found forgiveness and peace … I have come to understand that through the infinite wisdom of my Father in Heaven, I have been given this opportunity to pay my debt owed to society and the victims — essential to my salvation. … May we remember to pray without ceasing for the strength to flee from even the appearance of evil."

—?Name withheld