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Native American inmates participating in a ceremony guided by unpaid volunteers at the Gunnison prison through the help of volunteer workers.

Religious freedoms for CUCF inmates made possible through volunteer service

 

By Robert Stevens

Managing Editor

9-26-2019

 

GUNNISON—The Central Utah Correctional Facility (CUCF) has a large and vibrant community of volunteers who are committed to making a difference in the lives of incarcerated there.

The religious offerings for the thousands of prisoners in the CUCF are a big part of programming for the inmates, but it doesn’t matter what religion it is, the services cannot be offered without the presence of a volunteer.

Glenn Christensen, bishop at the Gunnison Valley stake, is heavily involved with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ efforts at the prison.

The facility is split into two main parts—Boulder and Henry—and the Gunnison Stake takes on the responsibility for the bulk of volunteer efforts in the Boulder side. Salina Stake operates the Henry side.

“The Church has always been very active in the goings-on of the correctional facilities in Utah,” Christensen says. “We want to make sure there are opportunities for worship for the inmates, and not just current members of the Church. Many of these men are having their very first spiritual experience here.”

Christensen says that 30-60 LDS volunteers come each week to help run various spiritual offerings and programming for inmates in the Boulder unit.

Besides running Sunday worship services, Christensen says volunteers help with teaching Institute, firesides and the family history center.

Christensen says the prison worship services are similar to sacrament meeting, and various volunteers come to share stories and testimony to 80-100 inmates every Sunday.

“These meetings are very uplifting experiences,” Christensen says “Without fail the speakers who come and the men who come to listen are always very appreciative of each other. It’s been very uplifting and challenging. Everyone in this facility are felons and have stories that are hard to hear, but they are working through problems that are systematic of the world we live it. Being able to help them through it has given the volunteers a greater perspective of the love the Lord has for this world.”

The setting of the prison and the crimes of the incarcerated can be a little daunting at first, Christensen says.

“In our experience the volunteers that come are at first apprehensive because of the location, but quickly come to realize all these men are just like us, they’ve only made more serious mistakes,” he says. “The biggest challenge is willingness to accept the invitation to serve. Once they’ve come one time they are eager to come back.”

Once the prospective volunteers get over that first hurdle of coming in, getting security clearance and get started, the rewards are substantial, says Christensen.

“This kind of service has a great impact on volunteers,” he says. “Nearly all of them report that it’s extremely gratifying to see the change in the lives of these men as they serve.”

Not all volunteerism at the CUCF is handled by LDS volunteers either. Other faith groups have spiritual needs as well, and other members of the community have stepped up to make sure they are filled.

 

Native American spiritual practices

 

Joe Bennion of Spring City jokingly refers to his volunteer career at the Central Utah Correctional Facility (CUCF) as a “life sentence.”

In reality, Bennion, who has been involved in volunteer work at the prison since 1994, calls it that because he feels a deep commitment to the task.

Bennion facilitates a safe and supervised opportunity for Native American inmates at the prison to participate in the religious and spiritual practices of their native culture.

“I don’t teach this stuff, and I am not a medicine man,” Bennion says. “They call me a spiritual advisor, but I look at myself not as that but as an ally who holds the door open for the inmates to participate in these sacred ceremonies.“

Bennion is a member of the LDS Church, but while serving a mission in Toronto, Canada he spent a large portion of his service on an Indian Reservation and became acquainted with the Indigenous spiritual practices.

Bennion says he grew a strong attachment to many things the Native Americans held sacred and wanted to maintain an involvement with it.

In 1994, he would get that chance after meeting a Native American man who facilitated the sacred ceremonies at CUCF.

Bennion stuck his toe in the waters of volunteer prison service by helping out his new friend and participating in the ceremonies.

“Over time the fellow that brought me in moved on and it fell to me to keep this going,” Bennion says. “Whether its LDS, or Muslim or Catholic or Native American, they can’t have their meeting without a volunteer that is not a paid employee.”

So Bennion has been visiting the prison without fail since 1994 and making sure the Native American inmates can practice their religious traditions just like the LDS or Catholic inmates can, and he takes it very seriously.

In addition to preparing the sweat lodge structure for the inmates to take part in the sweat, Bennion is also the keeper of a very special responsibility—providing tobacco for use in the sacred pipe ceremony.

“I am the only person authorized to bring tobacco into the prison,” Bennion says. “I grow it myself and bring it in for each ceremony. I am very careful about it, because I don’t want to do anything to risk having these privileges taken away.”

Bennion says from time to time a medicine man from out of the area will come in to check on the Native American inmates to see how things are in regards to their spiritual practices, but he expects to be handling it for a long time to come.

Like his predecessor, however, Bennion is trying to involve others in the volunteer work as well, and Robert Buckner of Spring City has given volunteer service at CUCF a chance now by helping him with the ceremonies.