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SALT LAKE CITY — If it’s a Monday, chances are Chris and Sandra Fortune are en route to Gunnison in a 12-person van to minister to state prison inmates.
They are members of a Salt Lake City Christian church who travel weekly to the prison to conduct religious services with inmates. The experience, Sandra Fortune said, enables her and other members of her church to share God’s love, spread his message and lift inmates' spirits while they are incarcerated.
The Fortunes said they were acquainted with a young man who was sentenced to the Gunnison prison for automobile homicide. That connection evolved into their church, Miracle Rock International Ministries of Salt Lake, making weekly visits to the facility to conduct religious services.
The Fortunes said they have witnessed lives transformed by the gift of religious service offered by some 1,500 volunteers in the state correction’s system of about 6,900 inmates.
About 300 of the volunteers attended a celebration Saturday evening at the LDS Conference Center that included a light buffet and presentation of "Our Story Goes On." The nondenominational event was hosted by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Rollin Cook, executive director of the Utah Department of Corrections, said Utah has the highest number of prison volunteers nationwide. The inmates who are assisted by volunteers, he said, "have good chance of succeeding (upon release) if they choose to follow the paths set by their mentors."
Whether volunteers are conducting religious services or teaching inmates to crochet — helps inmates become more aware of the needs and feelings of other people.
–Craig Burr, division director of programming
Thanks to the labors of volunteers, Utah prison inmates have access to religious services representing 20 different faiths. Aside from religious observances, volunteers help teach crafts, work in treatment programs and even lead choirs.
The Fortunes say the young man who got their church community involved in the weekly trips to Gunnison has been empowered by his faith.
“(Other inmates) know if they mess with him, he’s sold out to Jesus,” Sandra Fortune said.
Another couple, Paul and Rochelle Erickson, of Salina, also volunteer at the Gunnison prison. The Ericksons, who were asked by LDS Church leaders to serve about 15 months ago, conduct Family Home Evenings among inmates, their spouses or other family members.
Rochelle Erickson also teaches piano to inmates in a room that has about 10 keyboards.
The Ericksons said they have been told by corrections officials that volunteers make a tremendous difference in the inmates’ attitudes.
Paul Erickson said the experience is uplifting for them, too.
“You go away feeling good,” he said.
His wife added, “I have a guilty secret. It lifts me. I feel so good.”
Craig Burr, division director of programming for the Utah Department of Corrections, said the gift of volunteer service — whether volunteers are conducting religious services or teaching inmates to crochet — helps inmates become more aware of the needs and feelings of other people. That's important because most inmates will eventually be released from prison.
"They’re very instrumental in helping them transition into the community," Burr said.
Lloyd Pendleton, director of the state's task force on homelessness, said he and others instruct female inmates how to successfully transition out of prison "so they don't become homeless."
Some volunteers are reticent to enter the secure facility, but once they become familiar with the setting, that changes, Pendleton said.
"It's a very connecting experience and they do want to come back," he said.
Burr said some volunteers have served at the prison for more than a decade.
"Once they come in, they love it and they don't want to leave," he said.