Weber County jail inmates catch family history bug

Wednesday , March 27, 2013 - 2:58 PM

Rachel J. Trotter

OGDEN — It didn’t take long for Theresa Coggins to fall in love with family history indexing. She does it at least three times a week and arranges her work schedule around indexing times.

One of her best friends, Joey Robison, feels the same way. She likes to imagine what the stories of the people she is looking up are all about.

The two are much like many others who enjoy indexing, or finding records of people to transfer to the LDS Family Search site.

What sets them apart is that they do their work as inmates from the Weber County Correctional facility.

The facility started allowing inmates to do the work about six months ago as a pilot program through the LDS Church. It has been so successful that in the coming months it will be expanded to all the county jails in the state. Ogden East Stake President Reed Richards helped get the ball rolling with some emeritus Seventies in the area after they met with those from the LDS branch at the Utah State Prison.

“The state prison is the largest extractor in the world. The inmates don’t have a lot going on, and this gives them purpose,” Richards said.

The Ogden East Stake includes the Weber County Correctional Facility Branch, so Richards thought the success at the state prison could transfer to the local level — and he was right.

Twelve service missionaries from the stake help run the indexing program at the jail. They run two to three sessions of men and women each week. The interest has grown enough that they will have two sessions five days a week, service missionary Jim Pierce said.

The LDS Church provided 17 laptop computers, and the jail helped set up the Internet for use to do the indexing. It was a careful process, because the inmates could only have access to the indexing online, Pierce said.

“The work is not difficult, but it can be interesting,” he said.

Coggins agrees with that.

“I enjoy computer work, and I know we are helping someone,” she said as she quickly looked at data on her computer screen. “My mom is really into genealogy. I’m a federal inmate, so I have a lot of time here to do this.”

Coggins’ friends give her a lot of credit for getting them interested and for helping them out. They also give much credit to the service missionaries.

“They’re not putting on a show. They help us like this all the time,” Robison said as she motioned to Leslie Pierce, who was helping another inmate.

Coggins kept listing reasons that doing the indexing is a positive thing. Not only does it give the inmates a chance to use their brains to do the work, they are gaining computer skills they can use when they leave.

Pierce said he felt a little intimidated when he and his wife first received the call to get things going with inmates and indexing, but his fears were quickly alleviated after his first visit.

“The inmates are all very nice. They like coming and being able to do something productive,” Pierce said. “Even the men that look a little rough are really nice and easy to be around.”

Richards said he and others have found that it gives many a sense of purpose and a connection to their families, both living and dead.

Many continue to do the work when they are released. Robison plans to. She has some family members who enjoy doing the work, and she is trying to encourage her parents to start going to the family history library so they can work on things together.

Keriann Bushman is a member of the LDS Church, and she enjoys the connection to the church in that way.

“I always wanted to see how it works, and it’s interesting helping people to find their genealogy,” she said.

Weber County Sheriff’s Sgt. Joe Porter said the experience has been great for the jail.

“We like to keep the inmates busy. The busier we keep them, the easier they are to manage,” he said.

Things started out slow, getting inmates to volunteer at first, but once a few started, many others became interested.

Inmates have to exhibit good behavior to take the indexing break. For some, the fact that it’s the LDS Church that sponsors it has been a deterrent, but once they find out it’s not just for members of the church — that anybody can do it —they become more interested.

“When they find out you don’t have to be LDS to play, they are in,” Porter said.

The men and women are kept separate, and the women have shown more interest so far. Since the start of the program in August, the inmates in Ogden have indexed approximately 80,000 names.

“That’s a really nice part,” Pierce said of the number of names that are indexed, but there’s more to it than that for everyone involved. “The biggest impact has been the satisfaction they feel and the self-respect.”

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