zMormon Newsroom

Service Helps Inmates Look Beyond Themselves

15 January 2015

Salt Lake City — 

David joined a team at the Kane County, Utah, jail that he found surprisingly comforting — the family history indexing team. “Indexing brought the inmates together in teamwork — like a sporting event — and it was really good to see in a setting like this,” the prisoner explained. “Indexing allows us to have a positive interaction with one another.”

The process of indexing uses FamilySearch software to view images of old records and requires volunteers to enter a variety of records — birth, marriage, death, census, ship logs and other sources — into the system. The data is then compiled by FamilySearch (an organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) into a searchable index, matched with corresponding images, published on and is then available for public use.

“Because of indexing, more people are discovering their ancestors more quickly than at any time in history,” said Mike Judson, who manages the indexing volunteer efforts for FamilySearch. “This ease of discovery is helping thousands of people every day to better understand who they are and where they came from.”

The Kane County indexers are among nearly 2,300 inmates in Utah, Idaho and Arizona who voluntarily participate in the family history indexing program sponsored by the Church. At the Utah State Corrections facility the indexing center runs three shifts a day, seven days a week, and supports that time with donated computer equipment and volunteer advisors from local units of the Church.

In the state facility or the county jails, the program advisory varies: service missionaries consult with inmates in most locations, but the Kanab-based prisoners manage their own program with a single Church leader as an occasional advisor. In each setting, computers and software are provided by the Church. Firewalls prohibit direct access to the Internet, but microfilms and flash drives offer research opportunities to the inmates.

In 2014, the indexing prisoners processed more than seven million names, nearly one million of them managed by the Kane County group in the single month of August. The San Juan County Jail completed an additional 1.5 million names through November.

Since 2012, the incarceration-indexing program has grown from nine to 32 participating jails, including Utah county centers and the two statewide facilities at the Point of the Mountain and in Gunnison, Utah. The number of inmate volunteers increased by some 650 from 2013.

“The indexing program is very useful to the inmates,” explained Ken Jones, administrative sergeant at the Summit County Justice Center in Park City, Utah. “Anything that gives them a purpose bigger than themselves improves the whole environment at the jail. We like to keep the inmates engaged and busy as a management tool — it’s a win/win all around for all of us.”

Jail administrative personnel throughout the state concur, according to Bary Gammell, a volunteer coordinator of the program for the Church’s Family History Department. “The prisoners are invited to come, regardless of their religious affiliation, and they gain a sense of community, they work together and seem to be less confrontational overall. Individually, the inmates improve their computer skills and develop a level of confidence as they reach their personal indexing goals.”

At first Allen decided to attend the family history indexing project at the Utah State prison because of the “soft chairs — the only place in the whole building that has a cushion on a chair” — but he soon discovered an intriguing and inspiring pastime at the computer. Now he regularly reaches his goal of indexing 700 names each week.

George, at the Park City facility, described his indexing participation as several other inmates did: “For us it’s a way of giving back. Being in a place like this where we do time, it’s something outside ourselves that we can do and feel like we are helping others.”

Mae, also in Summit County, finds a connection to her grandmother who also does family history. “I like to do things on the computer,” she added, “and it gives me comfort that I can help people, maybe even my own family research, with the names I index.”

Gathering the facts of indexing creates an adventure for Lillie, another Summit County inmate. “I’ve always been curious about history,” she said. “I like to know the facts that make a difference in somebody’s life, and then imagine other details that might have happened. It’s a great opportunity that we’re allowed to do this service, to know that I’m helping someone else.”

Some records are challenging to read, but inmate Trent admitted, “If you quietly listen, you can figure it out. You think about it and even say a little prayer and the information comes. It’s interesting to see how that works. I really feel like I’m being blessed in many ways for working in indexing.”

In addition to indexing, inmates at the Utah State facilities have an opportunity to do their own family research using microfilms they request. Walt Coulam and his wife, Karen, serve as directors of the Wasatch unit there and deliver the research films to the prison each week.

“The family research gives them a new perspective,” Walt explained. “They find family members they didn’t even know about, some as close as grandparents. They compile all their information in a folder; some have made books they give as holiday gifts or are able to connect with their families in another way.”

For Bernado, the family history research gave him “something to pass on to my children. It’s important that they know their lineage.” Through careful research and a campaign of letter writing to tribal and government officials, the Native American traced one family line to 1397 in Spain.

Participation in the family history projects not only benefits the inmates, but has a striking effect on the volunteers as well.

“You quickly learn that these participants are 150 very unique individuals,” Walt Coulam said. “You see them as gentlemen and you see a change in them as they continue the family history work. It really changes their attitudes when they are able to do something for someone else, … and then it changes us as we offer service to them.”

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