Mark sits on the chapel pew with his hands folded neatly in his lap. The soothing melody of a church hymn and the steady hum of whispering mingle about him amidst the concrete walls of the A-frame chapel. His dirty-blonde hair is a bit shaggy, his smile sheepish though friendly.
Mark attends his church services faithfully each Sunday. He directs the choir. He volunteers as a clerk in the family history library. He spent two years in Canada serving a full-time mission.
And on the second Monday of each month Mark, an inmate at the Utah State Correctional Facility in Draper, Salt Lake County, meets with a husband and wife couple from the outside for an intimate Family Home Evening gathering.
This couple is his adopted family. Mark doesn’t know much about their personal lives. He prefers not to ask. But he does know the message they leave is part of what keeps him going. That message is one of healing and hope.
“I’m a sex offender,” Mark confesses in a voice tinged with both sadness and relief. “I did some bad things, and I deserve to be here.”
Utah’s prison Family Home Evening program is a volunteer-powered effort that has gained growing attention from prison systems in other states across the nation, says Bob Seland, a part-time prison chaplain and the director of the prison’s Institute of Religion. Seland calls the almost 30-year-old effort one of the “jewels in the Utah state prison crown.”
“I think FHE is one of the better programs we have,” he says, “because it gives the inmates someone to talk to one-on-one, face-to-face. It provides a mom and a dad who are normal, nice people who love them and care about them.”
Seland says the success of the Family Home Evening program appears to contradict conventional wisdom that suggests education alone is the key to reducing the recidivism rates in prisons. More education means better jobs means fewer reasons to commit crimes, the logic goes. But some prison employees, like Seland, don’t buy it.
“If someone succeeds,” Selands says, “it’s probably due to, frankly, a religious conversion.”
Not every inmate qualifies for the privilege of participating in the Family Home Evening program, and some choose not to. Inmates must attend at least three-fourths of their Sunday church services and actively participate in the prison’s religious institute program to remain eligible for the Monday meetings.
Seland estimates that 30 to 40 percent of Family Home Evening attendees aren’t even members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“They might start out reluctantly,” Seland says of the non-Latter-day Saint Family Home Evening goers, “but they go and say, ‘This is religion, this is old-time religion.'”
There is no limitation on the types of offenders who may participate in Family Home Evening. Everyone from pedophiles to murderers are eligible and attend.
Frightening as it might seem to some, that fact doesn’t dissuade thousands of volunteers from serving in the prison’s religious programs, including Family Home Evening. There are approximately 2,000 religious volunteers working at the Draper facility alone. Family Home Evening volunteers receive nothing more than a two-hour training before they’re assigned to work with a particular inmate or, as Seland says, before they’re “baptized by fire.”
Bob and Kathryn Robinson of Salt Lake City began attending Family Home Evening at the prison about six months ago, shortly after their stake president spoke to them about the possibility of volunteering there.
The Robinsons were originally assigned just one inmate, as is usually the case, but two more inmates have since joined their adopted family. Thus far, no one at the prison has objected, and the Robinsons aren’t complaining either. They call this hour in purgatory the best night of their month.
“They’re fun men, and we love to be around them,” Bob says.
Family Home Evening begins with a hymn, a prayer and a spiritual message. Then each makeshift family stakes out a separate section of the chapel and shares a lesson.
The Robinsons allow the inmates to choose the topic each month. The message invariably turns to themes of love, forgiveness and self-worth. Sometimes the inmates do the teaching. There is a sense of urgency to these lessons you won’t find in your run-of-the-mill Sunday School class.
The Robinsons don’t ask about the past. They don’t seem to care.
“I think my biggest lesson is we simply can not judge,” Kathryn says, “because the Lord knows their hearts, and in this setting their hearts really shine through.”
There are no games or refreshments at these gatherings. The evening itself is treat enough. And while it’s true you’ll find the stereotypical tattoos and pony tails and grim, stubble-filled faces, there is also laughter and a generous sense of gratitude.
Said one inmate from the pulpit: “I just want you volunteers to know that you touch our lives in many ways.”
Strangely, this special bond between inmates and volunteers is perhaps what prison officials fear most. Before beginning a stint at the prison, each volunteer must sign an agreement in which they promise not to give inmates their phone number, do favors for inmates or have any contact with inmates after the inmates are released from prison.
Sympathy breeds collusion, but misbehavior on the part of volunteers is rare. Over the last seven years, only three volunteers have been suspended, mostly for minor infractions of these regulations, and volunteers like the Robinsons see nothing but good coming from the program.
“We would have expected to be manipulated,” Bob says. “We would have expected them (the inmates) to say, ‘Let’s pretend so we can get out of here,’ but that hasn’t been the case at all.”
His wife agrees. The inmates have a tough road ahead, she says, and Family Home Evening can help ease that burden.
“It’s easy to tell someone about repentance,” she says, “but when you really believe it will happen in your own life, it’s a whole different story.”
So inmates like Mark wait, forced to dwell on a history they can never rewrite. They cling to every word of hope. Mark figures he’ll be up for parole in about three years. His blue eyes gaze toward the front of the chapel.
“Even though I served a mission and came from a good family, these things happen,” he says. “The only way to get over this is to be open about it and not to hide it.”