Utah Prisoners Do Mormon Genealogy Research From Jail

Apr 03, 2014 | Updated Apr 03, 2014
Al Hartmann / The Salt Lake Tribune

SALT LAKE CITY (RNS) William J. Hopkins already knew a bit about genealogy work when he arrived at the Utah State Prison in 1994, an interest that was sparked in his teens by an aunt who is a family historian.

Hopkins, 40, now spends two to three hours a day working on family history projects — his own and that of others — at the Family History Center at the prison’s Wasatch unit. He is an arbitrator; someone who reviews duplicate data entered by various indexers to ensure the information corresponds and then enters one copy into a database. Hopkins also tutors fellow inmates on how to do family research.

He has traced his family line back to Myles Standish, his 11th great-grandfather who came to America on the Mayflower as a military adviser to the Puritans and then went on to help settle Massachusetts. Hopkins also has traced his ancestors’ trek west as part of the Mormon migrations to the Utah territory between 1847 and 1850.

“You understand the hardships they went through,” he said, “and get to feel for them.”

The Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints opened the first Family History Center at the Utah State Prison more than 20 years ago. Today, there are four centers at the prison’s various units and one at the Central Utah Correctional Facility.

LDS Correctional Services also has centers in 14 jails in Utah and Idaho and plans to open as many as eight more in coming months.

Inmates who volunteered at Utah State Prison centers last year indexed more than 2 million records, said Wayne Parker, director of LDS Correctional Services for Salt Lake and Summit counties. They also put in approximately 50,000 hours of personal family research.

It’s transformative work, Parker said, which helps inmates get to know their own family histories while also developing understanding of others.

“Everybody desires to have an identity and know who they are,” he said. “It helps them to connect and fortifies their own identities, gives them a place in the scheme of things.”

One example: Parker said an inmate who worked in the Family History Center at the Wasatch unit set a goal of completing college after discovering through family research that his great-grandmother had received a degree in the 1920s, a time when few women sought higher education.

Several Mormon volunteers work with the inmates as part of the program, which debuted last year.

When the indexing is finished, the records go online and become publicly available for anyone to use.

Cache County Sheriff’s Deputy Chris Toone called the program a success. About half the jail population, or 150 people, is eligible to participate in work programs, and Toone said 23 inmates had voluntarily enrolled in the genealogy class in March. Enrollment numbers stay fairly consistent, which, he said, indicates the inmates like the program.

“It gives them a little satisfaction,” Toone said. “It’s a service they’re doing to help other people out. They also go because there are some keyboarding skills they can learn.”

At the Utah State Prison, inmates may spend up to three hours at a time in the centers, where they work on computers that connect only to the LDS Church’s family-history research databases or dedicated, stand-alone servers. Volunteers oversee their work.

Jed Dunford, LDS Correctional Services coordinator for Salt Lake and Summit counties, said piecing together puzzles from past lives can trigger “remarkable change” in inmates’ outlooks.

“They start thinking more in terms of others than themselves and that, we find, is a very beneficial perspective for inmates,” he said. “The inmates have a reason to look forward to the day instead of spending excessive time in their cells and with other inmates and bemoaning their situation in life. They have a better attitude, have a better perspective on life and are more motivated to change.”

That’s partly because the centers are a sanctuary from daily prison life, Hopkins said. “It’s a place you can go that is quiet, that’s not part of the everyday life in prison,” he said. “The volunteers make it more like we’re not in prison.”

Hopkins has worked on all sorts of records, including World War I draft registrations, Brazilian passports and North Carolina marriage records.

“The benefit to me is knowing that I’ve done something to help somebody else,” he said. “I know when I am looking online to find a name or something and I actually find it, is a relief, it’s exciting. I know that after I’ve indexed something, it is helping someone else feel that exhilaration that I’ve experienced.”

Also on HuffPost: