Inmates find purpose indexing vital records

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Inmates in Utah, Arizona and Idaho have found a new hobby as indexing becomes all the rage even with prisoners who aren’t members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“Indexing gets in your blood,” one inmate told his supervisor. “When you wake up you have a drive to get up, get ready and move forward to do more the next day. … It takes away the pressures of having other inmates in your face.”

The Utah LDS Correctional Services Committee set up an indexing pilot program with the Utah Sheriffs Association in 2012 at both the Weber County and Summit County Jails. The program was so successful that Elder Bary Gammell and Sister Jan Gammell, who were already serving as part-time missionaries at the Church History Library, were called in March 2013 as full-time missionaries to manage the program and spread it throughout all the county jails in Utah.

Most jails have two to three sessions a week where volunteers will index with the inmates. Indexing is the process of digitizing information from historical records in order to create searchable online indexes. Sister Gammell said that it feels almost like Christmas when the inmates get to index. “What we find is … that these inmates are easier to control; they’re happier. They have something to look forward to, which is indexing. They’re just better controlled, so it makes the jail personnel happier too,” Sister Gammell said.

All inmates are invited to work on the program whether they are LDS or not. They start each session with a prayer, which is usually offered by an inmate, even though the Gammells and the volunteers who help to teach the inmates are not allowed to proselyte in the jails.

Thirty-three correctional facilities operate in Utah, Idaho and Arizona. Each facility has at least two assigned volunteers. The Gammells have received requests to spread the program to Tucson, Arizona; Ontario, Oregon and Dublin, California.

Church leadership decides which jails or prisons are approved for the program. A branch or stake president will submit a request, and meetings are set up to establish how many laptops are needed, how many volunteers will be involved and also to teach and give clearance to the volunteers who will help teach the inmates.

The indexing is done on laptops imaged by Sister Gammell. The computers use a secure data line network set up by the project’ IT manager, Michael Tvedtnes access only indexing files, which are then sent to Salt Lake City for processing.

The jails in San Juan and Kane County do more sessions than most. They hold indexing time almost every day and have volunteers come on weekends as well. Kane County Jail processed more than 3 milion indexing and arbitration records last year. The jail in San Juan County indexed more than 1.5 million records. All total, more than 500 inmates throughout the prison system have indexed and arbitrated 7.5 million records in 2014 alone.

“The important thing about the program is how it changes hearts and lives. That is more important than whatever numbers that they produce,” Elder Gammell said. “Hearts and lives are changed with the people involved in the program, both of the volunteers and the inmate indexers. … We’ve seen people who have been converted to the Lord by this simple process of indexing.”

Mark Bradford, education director of the San Juan County Jail, said he has seen a positive impact from the program. “The atmosphere in the indexing classroom has obtained a tone of reverence to it that you just do not find in any other parts of the jail,” he said.

The inmates also feel the work they are doing is special. “We get to help others that cannot help themselves. … We may not see the direct result right away, but we will have an opportunity to see the results of their efforts in our behalf before we leave the prison system,” one San Juan County inmate said.

Missionaries may not actively teach the gospel in the jails, but they believe the inmates understand the importance of what they are doing and how it will positively affect the lives of others in society. “You feel like you are doing something for others they cannot do for themselves. So we can be seen as a savior to them. We help them move forward in the afterlife. They would be stuck if it was not for us and what we do,” another San Juan County inmate said.

The San Juan County Jail had an indexing event during August 2014, and Bradford recorded this statement from one of the inmates: “(Indexing) is like driving a truck. You get up in the morning and go all day long at it, and when the day is over you go home tired, ready for a night meal and sleep. … You can be seen as a productive citizen in giving back to society what you are doing.”

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