Finding Faith in Prison: How criminals are teaching volunteers to love

Inmates at Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center. Listen to the podcast in the video player above. | Courtesy Idaho Department of Correction

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POCATELLO – Between eight and 30 women gather in a small chapel for Sunday worship services at the Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center.

They’re all dressed in scrubs, ranging in color from red and orange to brown and green, signifying the unit they’ve been assigned within the prison. Not every inmate is present, but Mike Bright, the leader of a group of volunteers called to minister at the prison, tells EastIdahoNews.com those who do attend are there because they want to be.

“They can’t go anywhere and they’re so happy to see you. They’ve committed some terrible crimes, but love radiates from those ladies,” Bright says.

Services have not been held at the center since the onset of COVID-19, but Bright describes what a typical Sunday was like prior to the outbreak.

As the religious leader asked to preside over the unit, he usually sat at the front of the group, along with other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from throughout the area who are assigned to minister in the Kinport Branch on a rotating basis. Kinport is the name for the congregation of female inmates.

The correctional center is a maximum-security prison, which requires Bright and his volunteers to get through four levels of security just to hold services.

“You’d go up to the front door and push a button. The guards would let you in. Then they would check us in, frisk us with a wand and then we’d go through a metal detector (before entering another door leading to a foyer),” Bright says. “Then you’d go through another door that locked behind you and you were in the prison.”

The final level of security is the doorway to the chapel – a room about 25 feet by 20 feet with a maximum seating capacity of 30 people.

Once everyone had gathered, Bright would welcome everyone in attendance and services would begin with a hymn and a prayer. Two of the volunteers would then deliver a simple message.

“It’s mostly what we feel in our heart they might need that day,” says Sally Lunceford, one of the volunteers. “You might have prepared a (message) and then the day of (the service) you’ll say ‘That doesn’t feel right. They need to hear this.’

Lunceford serves as the Relief Society President at the prison. In Latter-day Saint congregations, Relief Society is a class for women 18 and up. Lunceford would coordinate this class in individual units immediately following services and help with activities for the inmates throughout the week.

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‘God knows who they are’

Serving in this capacity gives Lunceford a unique opportunity to have one-on-one interaction with these women and she got to know them on a personal level. She recalls a special connection she made with one woman in particular.

“She wasn’t even a girl who came to our services a lot, but I found out her name and if I met her in the hallway, I would say ‘Hello’ and call her by name,” Lunceford says.

Lunceford says this simple gesture was a big deal to the inmate because they are typically identified by their last name at the prison.

“After that … I always made sure that I acknowledged her name,” Lunceford says. “We all need that acknowledgment that we are a person. Even though they are in that circumstance — and yes, they put themselves there — they’re still somebody and God knows who they are.”

Lunceford lost contact with the woman once the stay-home order went into effect and she has since been released from prison. Under normal circumstances, volunteers are allowed to come and say goodbye to inmates as they exit the center. Due to COVID-19, Lunceford didn’t get that chance.

“I was just so sad because I didn’t get to say goodbye to her and I don’t know where she is,” Lunceford says.

Since beginning her service three years ago, Lunceford says she has run into several former inmates at restaurants and grocery stores. Though the encounters were brief, she says it was a rewarding experience to see them living a productive life.

“It’s always good to see that they are progressing and trying hard,” says Lunceford.

‘She loves the Savior like nobody I’ve ever seen’

Bright recalls an inmate he and his wife connected with whom we will call Mary. Bright requested we not reveal her name.

Bright says Mary became a good friend to him and his wife and from the moment they first met, Mary was a light.

“She was always bubbling. Even with her situation there, she could still smile and shine,” says Bright.

The Idaho Department of Corrections denied our request to speak with Mary, but court records indicate she was convicted of second-degree murder and is serving a lifetime prison sentence. She has a parole hearing scheduled for April of 2025 and has been incarcerated for about 18 years, according to Bright.

Prior to her conviction, Mary was a baptized Latter-day Saint. She has since been excommunicated because of her prison sentence, but Bright says she loves Jesus more than anyone he’s ever known.

“I’ve never been in prison, but I spent a year in Vietnam and I understand this — In war and in prison, you get really close to God,” Bright says. “This lady had read the Bible front and back. She had read the Book of Mormon front and back. Anything she could get her hands on to read, she read it and understood it, had an absolute testimony of the gospel and loved everything about it. She loves the Savior like nobody I’ve ever seen.”

Bright says it was satisfying to watch her spirituality and love of God grow during the seven years he served.

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‘I learned how to love people like I didn’t think I could’

Bright was recently released from this position and he misses the experience, despite the time it took each week. There were things happening there almost every night of the week and Bright is grateful for the lessons he learned.

“I learned how to love people like I didn’t think I could,” Bright says.

He cites the story of Jesus separating the sheep from the goats in Matthew 25, and references verse 36, which says, “I was in prison, and ye came unto me.”

“That verse never meant anything to me before. But when I went up there, I realized … they are absolutely daughters of a Father in heaven and he loves them,” he says.

To learn more about the center and how you can get involved, click here.

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