In Prison and Ye Came

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by Michaela

This is the story of why I go to prison every month.

Actually, to be more specific and less provocative, my husband and I have home taught an inmate in prison in Florence, Arizona for four years now.

My favorite scripture story of all time is the story of Ammon in the Book of Mormon, who goes on a mission to the Lamanites with his brothers. One day as I was driving to work, I suddenly had an intense yearning to go on a mission to teach the gospel to a lost and benighted people, like Ammon had. This seemed to descend upon me out of the blue, although I suppose now it was simply the desire to live the miracle Ammon lived. I asked myself, “Where can I go?” I didn’t feel I could travel, so I decided I needed to find a lost and benighted people in the Phoenix area. And that’s when I got the idea to visit people in jail or in prison.

I didn’t know anything about how someone gets into a jail to do missionary work. I decided to try the direct approach first, so I called a jail. When their automated phone system asked me to input an ID number for the inmate I wanted to visit, I realized it might be harder than I thought to find someone to teach, considering I didn’t know anyone in jail. I never thought that would be a problem, but now it was.

I went to the library and looked at a few books about the prison system. One book in particular contained notes from prison inmates who expressed their profound appreciation for anyone on the outside who was willing to even write to them. They felt thrown away by society; they were treated like trash. I was surprised that they would feel that way; somehow I had the idea that they would have some kind of self-sufficiency that would make them difficult to reach, but reading of their deep need confirmed my sense of how important it would be to visit them. Yet I found nothing that gave me any clue how I could get in through the doors.

After my direct approach failed and the books didn’t help, I thought that maybe the best way in would be to become a prison guard or a jail guard. That would put me in direct contact with people who needed the message of the gospel. However, when I read about the three-month training period before employment would start (and which I didn’t have time for because I would be going back to school in the fall), I realized that it was likely that the training would probably harden me against the inmates, put me on an adversarial footing with them, and fill me with ideas like “they are no good,” “they are not to be trusted,” etc. No, becoming a guard wasn’t the way.

I don’t know how to explain why the welfare of inmates became so important to me but I do know I felt compelled to act. Satan tried to tempt me to prove the zeal of my desire. He tried to make me think that I should act on this desire to serve by committing a crime so that I could be with inmates. As I look back on that temptation, it is obvious to me that was wrong, but at the time, I was frustrated and it was very tempting. I managed to resist by remembering the remorse that I had experienced every other time I had done something wrong. I knew that if I committed a crime, I would disappoint myself, I’d disappoint all who knew me, and I would lose the moral strength I’d need to share the gospel.

After this, it seemed like all doors in were closed to me. I didn’t know what else to do, so I did nothing for several months. That was hard because it felt like I was squelching divine direction and I suffered some feelings of guilt over it. (I realize now that I allowed myself to confuse intense desire to serve with divine guidance, so my frustration felt like guilt and disobedience.)

A few months later, I was in a ward council meeting and the high counselor in attendance mentioned that the stake was looking for people to volunteer for the church’s prison ministry program, either as teachers at weekly church meetings or as home teachers. When I heard that, I was SO excited. It felt like Heavenly Father had heard me, knew of my desires, and was offering an opportunity to me.

I was given the phone number of a Brother Jarvis who was in charge of the prison ministry in Florence, Arizona. He got permission for my husband and I to come to a church meeting at the prison to see what it was like so that we could choose whether teaching weekly or being home teachers was best for us.

Here’s what I wrote in my journal about that first visit:

We drove through Florence and towards the outskirts we started to see prison facilities and we saw men in orange outfits outside doing stuff. I felt just a twinge of shock that they allowed them to be outside, but then I told myself, “Silly, of course they have to go outside sometimes! Don’t freak out; there’s still a fence between them and you…” So I was okay. We came to the prison complexes and there were a whole bunch of them in the same area, all on the same road with a small city block’s worth of open desert between them. To get into the complex area you had to drive past a guard station and show your driver’s license.

We knew beforehand that we were only allowed to take in certain things with us, like our scriptures, our driver’s license, and one car key. We were not allowed to wear any orange, since the prison inmates wore that color, nor were we allowed to wear khaki or brown, since the guards wore those colors. We went through a metal detector in the foyer, and they searched through our stuff. Brother Jarvis told us they sometimes have dogs people to see if anyone brings in drugs. He said once one of the guards told him to put a packet of drugs in his pocket to test whether the dog was doing a good job or not.. and afterwards they wrote down his name so that they would know that he had been a “tester,” so that if the dogs still smelled it on him in the future they would know he really didn’t have it on him. Evidently the smell of drugs “clings” to a person. That was an eye-opener for me.

….We went out into the prison yard and into a little gated area, and there was a small classroom that connected onto that. We were with Brother and Sister Powers and Brother Clark. Brother Clark had the lesson on Isaiah prepared.

Presently, an inmate in a wheelchair rolled in. His name was Lance. He told us he was just transferred to that facility and he found the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith very interesting. He seemed pretty meek. Another guy showed up too. His name was Ira. He had been raised LDS, and he seemed very troubled. His brow stayed wrinkled for most of the lesson, and I wanted to ask him what he was worried about. Yet he listened, though he fidgeted occasionally. He said life seemed like hell. I said that even people who do everything they are supposed to occasionally feel like life stinks…but that that was a feeling of estrangement from God because of being away from Him. I now wish I had said something about how living the gospel and choosing the right brings peace and happiness. But hopefully what I said was good for the time. Lance came in with comments of his own from time to time. We read Isaiah 53, Brother Clark talked about the Plan of Salvation.. And we fielded some questions from Ira about why we should be careful with our bodies if we’ll be resurrected with a perfect body at the end. He said, “Why not have all the fun you can?” Well, starting with the scripture “If any man defile the temple of God, him will God destroy”… Obviously his is a completely different attitude about his body….

At the end, after Lance and Ira left to go back to their cells, Sister Powers commented that Ira was much, much improved from the last time they’d seen him. She said last time he said stuff like he had stabbed someone and he wasn’t a bit sorry, etc., etc. Sister Powers said he had been trying to scare them and she was happy to see such an improvement. (Oct 7, 2006)

After that one meeting, I really REALLY wanted to help teach weekly lessons, but my church calling at the time required me to be at church, and the prison meetings happened during church. My husband wanted to do weekly meetings too, but after talking together, we decided it would be wisest to home teach, since that gave us greater flexibility.

Who to visit?

We passed our decision on to Brother Jarvis, and in a few weeks, we were sent a few profile sheets of some inmates requesting home teachers with directions to look them over, pray about them, and make a decision. There was one that attracted my notice. On the sheet, one of the questions said, “Would you like to have home teachers?” The answer written in was, “Yes!” Somehow that little exclamation point on the end of the “yes” touched me. I said nothing about it to my husband, and we prayed together to know whom we should choose to home teach.

“So, what was your impression?” he asked.
“What was yours?” I asked.
“I asked you first,” he said.
“I felt like we should pick Andrew,” I said.
“So did I,” he said.
Andrew was the one who had written “Yes!”

Paperwork

Each inmate had a “ten list,” a list of ten people that are allowed to visit him, and in order to visit Andrew, we had to apply to be put on his “ten list.” As far as I know, no one can be on multiple “ten lists” unless they are related to those inmates. On Andrew’s end, he had to submit a request for us to be added. Then the prison system had to do a background check on us. As I understand it, they check to try to find and break criminal and accomplice connections.

It took us several months before we were put on Andrew’s list, so during that time, we wrote letters back and forth to get to know each other. (Side note: We were told by the prison ministry branch leadership that we were not to put our home addresses on the envelope, but to instead use the branch’s PO Box address and the branch would forward his letters to us.)  We still have some of these letters.

“Thank God for you both. It would be absolutely wonderful to have you for a home teacher! I have prayed for just that. Righteous fellowship is quite hard to come by in here as you may imagine…”

“I really look forward to meeting you both. It is sure to be a very uplifting time. Thank you both for your open heart and mind. And may God bless you for your charitable actions…”

Visits

We visit Andrew every month. On the long drive to the prison, we read through the home teaching message, discuss what points could be most applicable to Andrew, and ask each other questions about the principles. Often these questions remind us of faith-promoting experiences that we can share with him. We are not allowed to bring any teaching materials into the prison, so we have to know the lesson well enough to give it from memory.

Andrew is in a medium security prison. The visitation room has tables and chairs and resembles a cafeteria, with the addition of a guard station that watches everything and supervises the entrance and exit of the inmates. Vending machines line the walls, and if we bring in a clear plastic bag with $20 maximum in quarters, we can buy food there. The inmates are not allowed to touch money or the vending machines. The room also has a shelf of some board games and editions of Bibles. There is a small fenced yard outside with picnic tables that inmates and their visitors can walk about in. The atmosphere seems comfortable and even joyful as inmates lose themselves in the moment of seeing loved ones.

When Andrew is brought in to the visitation room, we all share highlights and lowlights from the past month. Often some bit of news will make an excellent segue into the lesson. He frequently gratifies us with profound thoughts he has had on the principles we discuss, and it is a pleasure to feel the Spirit together. (I still remember when he told us that he prays to feel sorry when he finds he doesn’t feel sorry as he should. That little gem saved my bacon a number of times since then.) After the lesson, we will play a board game.

It is interesting to observe his countenance at the beginning of our visits. I can tell in the first few seconds how he’s been doing, whether it is been hard for him or whether he’s been successful at improving his life in some way. It is also neat to see him cheer up during our visits.


Impact

Over the course of the years that we’ve visited Andrew, we’ve seen him through some difficult times. We’ve seen him struggle to maintain a long distance relationship with his fiancé and watched him lose her to inactivity and then break up with her. That was painful. He’s battled peer pressure on the prison runs, he’s lost a friend who was transferred to a different prison, he’s had his ups and downs with church activity, he’s grappled with frustration and fear associated with his limited freedom, he’s even been in financial debt to fellow inmates! But we’ve also heard about how he uses his creativity, such as when he caught insects, mummified them in glue, and posed them on display, or when he’s scavenged some leftover food and made something better out of it. And what made us most glad was hearing about his progress to overcome drug addictions and the way he’s tried to share the gospel with other inmates.

Andrew often tells us how much he appreciates our visits. He hardly ever gets to see his mom because she lives more than a 1000 miles away, so if we didn’t visit him, he wouldn’t get visitors at all. It is refreshing to him to be able to interact with church members with uplifting conversation, who don’t swear, who don’t use innuendo, who don’t tease or mock him, and who help him feel safe and allow him to really share his deeper feelings of spirituality freely.

Andrew has told us that he and other prison inmates can see the goodness shine from church members’ faces who visit. Evidently there is such spiritual darkness around them all the time that the light of the gospel is much more noticeable to them.

Troubles we encounter

Home teaching a prison inmate is not completely free of difficulty. If an inmate breaks rules, he can lose some privileges. Once Andrew lost privileges such that we could not visit him on Saturday. Only Friday was available, so my husband had to take a half-day off from work for us to do our home teaching. It took a number of months for Andrew to get his privileges back, and during that waiting period as I tried to get information on his status, I found the prison system to be either opaque or a sender of conflicting messages. (I was told the issue had been resolved, only to find out later that it hadn’t been. I was told Andrew hadn’t completed the requirements for privileges to be reinstated, only to find out from him that he had been misdirected.) I could only imagine that if it was frustrating to someone outside the prison, how frustrating it must be to someone incarcerated.

We’ve also found that prison guards can sometimes be a little bit arbitrary about the visitation rules, either on the strict end or on the lax end. My husband and I realize that we must work with the prison administration and we are there on their sufferance. We want to make sure that our behavior brings credit to the Church, so we make a point to not complain, but to keep the rules, to be respectful and cheerful, and present ourselves well.

To sum up

Yes, home teaching a prison inmate sounds dramatic and amazing, but it is just like normal home teaching, except you go into a prison. (It even has its perks—the inmate is always “at home,” so there’s not much difficulty with scheduling.)

Home teaching a prison inmate has shown me that they need us. They have been thrown away by society and they are looked upon as the dross of mankind, but the worth of their souls is still great in the sight of God, as great as ours. There are some there who are members of the church who have made wrong choices and need someone to reach out to them. Other inmates find the gospel in prison and wait eagerly for the day when they will be released so they can receive baptism. They are in desperate need of uplifting companionship and good examples.

Christ anticipated welcoming into the kingdom of God those whose charity caused them to reach out to prison inmates: “…I was in prison, and ye came unto me.”

Home teaching Andrew has also taught me more about the deep love that Christ has for all of us and shown me that the atonement of Christ really is for all mankind. It is one thing to see how it works in your own life, but it is amazing to see an inmate take hold of it and change their life.

“Untouchable” classes of people still exist today, and prison inmates are usually considered to be one of them. Can you share with me a time when you reached out to an “untouchable”?

About Michaela

Michaela (Scriptorium Blogorium) is a true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool BYU Cougar who just happened to finish her degree at Arizona State University in Literature, Writing, and Film. She loves reading, writing, studying the scriptures, singing with the primary kids as chorister, helping people organize and de-clutter their stuff, and generally exuding enthusiasm for the simple pleasures and victories of life. She’s an honorary member of the elder’s quorum moving company and aspires to become many things, one of which is a good cook. She blogs at Scriptorium Blogorium and a few other places too..

5 Responses to In Prison and Ye Came

  1. Ben Arkell says:

    Thanks for your willingness to serve and share your story! It’s nice to know there are those out there who want to be instruments in God’s hands.

  2. Paul says:

    What a fascinating look into a kind of service so basic to the gospel, yet not at the top of mind for most of us. Thanks for your service and for sharing your experience.

  3. templgoer says:

    What a wonderful way to be of service to the Lord’s children. I have often wondered how I might fill the space left when our sick children finally recover and move on-our own health is impaired and would make it difficult for us to serve missions. This has inspired me to perhaps use your example in the future and consider this beautiful ministry. We are indeed all God’s children.

  4. Michaela says:

    templgoer, prison ministry would probably be a good fit for you. It won’t hurt you to ask your bishop, or high counselor, or stake president if the church has a prison ministry in your area. If there is one, find out about it and see whether there is a way to get involved that fits with your circumstances and abilities.

  5. Bonnie says:

    I love this post. My work crosses boundaries with the prisons because poverty and drugs and crime often grew up together. I have a special place in my heart for inmates and am a profound critic of the prison system. But what was most compelling for me was your willingness to act on a deep desire to make a difference, to be a tool in the hands of the Lord. I, too, understand what would make Ammon and his brothers want to serve the spiritually poorest of the poor, the most violent, the enemies of civilization. We each have our different callings, and Ammon’s mission isn’t for everyone, because we are each needed where the Lord inspires us to be. But I do love this as a soulmate.

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