Last week Marla and I were released from our calling to serve in the Carson City East Branch (prison branch). With the release I thought I would reflect a little on the last three and one half years in the prisons.
I was quite content teaching the Gospel Doctrine Class in Sunday School and looking forward for another year of study. Marla and I were called to visit with the High Councilor Nolan Greenburg. Our friend Will Blankenship was there as well. I knew that Will was the Branch President for the Prison Branch but I couldn't figure out why he was there. My friend Don Dixon was the Branch President before Will. Even though Will was there we were surprised to be called into the Branch.
Before we could actually start working we had to do some paperwork, get a criminal background check, pass a double screened TB test, and take a training course offered by the State of Nevada. It would be months before the State offered the class in Northern Nevada so we flew down to Las Vegas to take the four hour training. (I think the training could be done in 20 minutes by just about anyone but the prison guard union protects these training gigs for the officers.) We learned about the history of the Nevada Prison System, what to wear and not wear, and rules of being a volunteer. We left the class convinced that the inmates would try to con us at every turn. (That never actually happened. The men were incredibly polite and respectful. They would try to have us help improve some of their situations but we really couldn't help them in their physical arrangements.)
Our first week going into the prisons was not what we expected. We served in three facilities. Stewart Conservation Camp is a work camp and minimum security. One could literally walk away if one wanted to. These guys run the Wild Horse adoption program, do some ranching, fight fires with the National and State Forest Departments and work on grounds crews around the State Capital. Most of their offenses seem to relate to drug and alcohol related crimes. Methamphetamine by far being the most common drug problem. Warm Springs Correctional Center is a medium security prison facility. Most of these guys were younger but not all of them. They seemed to be in for a variety of crimes and times left on their sentences. We saw quite a bit of turnover in these two facilities.
Northern Nevada Correctional Center was more of a maximum security facility and was also the hospital unit for the prison system. These guys were in for a long time and many of them had health issues. While we didn't know all of their crimes or circumstances, a great many of the problems began with one or more of three things. Alcohol, Drugs, and Pornography. Many of the sexual crimes began with pornography.
The services we conducted were more like a Sunday School class. The church does not serve the sacrament in the prisons. At NNCC there are certain traditions to be followed. I learned that any deviation from these protocols is a serious matter. One person is designated to pick the hymns to sing. All verses must be sung. (If the meeting is going a little long, they will pick the longest hymn in the book just to irritate the guards.) Then after the prayer (an exception to church policy allows excommunicated members to pray in the prison branches.) is the "reading of the calendar". The local mortuaries produce a "Church History" calendar with pictures of the temples. They drop them off at the chapels as a freebie for the members. Of course the name and number is the mortuary is all over the calendar too. It used to bug me that the mortuaries got some free advertising via the church members with these calendars so I never paid much attention to them as Bishop, but these guys love them. The Church History Calendar is a prized possession. I was not allowed to miss the reading of the week in church history before proceeding with the meeting. One prisoner is appointed (by the other inmates) to be the reader of the calendar. It is seen as a great thing and only the more mature in the gospel are allowed to read.
Over the years we probably ran 40% or so non members attending our meetings. These guys are great missionaries and they would invite their "cellies" out to church. Some times at Stewart and Warm Springs we had all non members in our meetings.
I learned a lot of things about how one should stay out of trouble from these men. In some cases it is a clear example of the "Sins of the Fathers". Pornography leads to sexual crimes and in some cases the introduction to pornography was done by a father or other relative. "Make a man out of you". Many were introduced to drugs and alcohol by family members. One young man told me that everyone he knew and all of his family members did drugs and most sold drugs. He knew nothing else for most of his life. Some good Mormon boys in Southern Utah were drawn to the bright lights of Las Vegas. They tried to live a dual life. Being a regular good church member at home during the week and then "living it up" on the week end in Vegas. That didn't work. The add campaign "what goes on in Vegas stays in Vegas" is deceptive and destructive to otherwise good lives. I think some men were in the wrong place, with the wrong people, at the wrong time and ended up in jail for it. Who we choose to associate with is critically important. Not all but most of the paths that led to prison began as rebellious teenagers. The rules would not allow for it, but I wish I could take in a Priest Quorum and let them meet these men and hear their stories.
We met some incredible individuals. I learned the story of Don from one of the other prisoners at NNCC. (Jack) Don is from Cape Town South Africa. I don't know what kind of home life he had but at age 8 he killed his father. Somehow he ended up in America as an adult and was with some guys that held up a convenience store. In the process of the hold up the attendant of the store was killed. While Don didn't do the shooting he was guilty by association and ended up in jail. In an act of Christ like love and forgiveness the parents of the young man who was killed, sought Don out. They befriended him. On his release they offered him a job and a place to live. They taught him the gospel and he was baptized. A parole violation landed Don back in jail, but he was a changed man. With time on his hands he became an avid student of the scriptures. He brought friends to our church service and taught them the gospel. Through his studies he had very good understanding of the gospel and the scriptures. I was very sad when he was transferred to another facility out of our area. One of his friends that started attending our meetings was baptized when he was released and is working now in Montana.
We would help a few of the men on their release. We'd use the Fast Offering funds to put them up for a month in a half way house or hotel until they could get in contact with the local Bishop or family. In many cases their family distanced themselves from their relatives in prison. Marriages ended in divorce. Friends moved on. Imagine being removed from family, friends, and society for ten or more years and then being dropped on corner with $50, the rags you wore in prison (blue jeans and a denim shirt). Many had no one to call and no prospects. Some who were on parole would turn themselves back into the police so they could go back to prison. Those whose sentences were expired had no such options. Some returned to old friends who got them in trouble in the first place and they would end up back in prison.
We had wonderful testimony meetings with these men. On one Sunday Larry at NNCC bore a very strong testimony. Larry has been in prison for 38 years and had been attending our services for many years. I once asked one of the men how was it that such nice man was in prison for so long. He told me, "you didn't know him 38 years ago". Larry is not a member of the church. He has congestive heart failure and is in poor health. In his testimony he said the following. "I will probably never live outside of these walls, but I am free. I am free because I have a testimony of Jesus Christ and know that he is my Savior". That was one of the most spiritual testimony meetings I have ever attended.
Many of the men are not very happy with their lot in life, but many of them have the most wonderful attitudes. They are happy, and positive and try to make the best of their circumstances. Roy is a good example of this. He has prostate cancer and has been in jail for a long time. But he reads and studies everything he can get his hands on. He has diagrammed all the movements of the Book of Mormon peoples better than anything I have ever seen. He also paints. I asked him to paint his version of Lehi's dream. It was the best interpretation of it I have ever seen. Don M. was another one that always had smile on. He had been in prison for over 30 years. He was not a member of the church but completely converted. He would bare his testimony every month. I never had the heart to tell him that we didn't really need it, but he would keep a meticulously accurate roll every week. He always made sure we had an escort back to the guard house at the end of our service.
Many of the men were grateful for their time in prison because that is where they discovered or recovered their testimony of the Atonement of Christ. Ed at Stewart told of his conversion. Baptized as a child but never active with his family. He appeared to have been a very rough character in the drug business. He tells of hitting bottom and wanting to end his life. He was sentenced to solitary confinement and given a "Styrofoam cup, a roll of toilet paper, and the Ensign Magazine from the church." (his grandmother had sent it to him.) He started reading. He read the ensign, then the Bible, then the Book of Mormon and I would say he has found his faith and is a different man today.
I think Lloyd gave one of the best lessons on what the atonement is all about. He had been at NNCC for 12 years. (Drug and alcohol related offenses) His term was expiring and he was getting out. We had him share his testimony on his last Sunday with us. He told us how this last time in prison he knew he had hit bottom and he either had to make some changes in his life or he would spend the rest of his life in prison or he might end up dead. He said that as he was getting back into the gospel and studying his scriptures that he would have to make some changes. He gave a home builders analogy. He said he figured he'd have to move a few walls and add some paint and maybe change the carpets. What he did not plan on was that the Lord would perform a complete demolition of the old house and build a completely new one in it's place. I thought it was a wonderful metaphor for what repentance and the atonement is all about. Alma described it as a new heart or a new creature.
In our time in the prisons we have learned that our family is extremely blessed and we really don't have any problems compared to these men. The gospel and keeping the commandments are a formula for happiness in this life. The devil has many snares and following the commandments will keep us clear of them. Choosing very carefully who we have as our close friends is really important. The Lord loves his children. Anyone, no matter how bad can change if they do it through Christ. A positive attitude makes life's challenges far easier to endure.
We have enjoyed our experience in the prison. We have missed not being in a regular Ward family with it's associations. We have missed not knowing what is going on in the Ward. We have missed General Conferences and Stake Conferences. But it has been a great learning experience for us. I have been released as Branch President and new people have been called but I'll still need to fill in for a few months until the new people have completed their training.
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