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Offenders Help Build Massive Genealogical Index, Fill Gaps in Their Own Family Histories

Prison reform advocates have long since stressed the importance of strong connections between incarcerated offenders and their families in order to lower recidivism rates. But now, it's the prisoners who are working to strengthen everyone's family tree.

Nearly 2,300 prisoners in Utah, Idaho and Arizona are volunteering for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) to process genealogic­al records for the church's massive family history index, FamilySearch.

Prisoners at the participating facilities—including 32 jails and two state prisons in Utah—use computers and software provided by the LDS church to view images of old records, including birth, marriage and death certificates, census documents, ship logs and other sources, and enter them into the FamilySearch system. The prisoners are prohibited access to the internet, but are provided with microfilms and flash drives to assist their research.

The data is then processed and loaded into a searchable index published on, which is available free to anyone regardless of their religious background.

In 2014, the volunteer prisoners processed more than 7 million names for FamilySearch. At the Utah State Corrections facility, an "indexing center" operates three shifts every day of the week, managed by local volunteer advisers from the LDS church using donated computer equipment.

"Because of indexing, more people are discovering their ancestors more quickly than at any time in history," said Mike Judson, who manages FamilySearch's volunteer efforts. "This ease of discovery is helping thousands of people every day to better understand who they are and where they came from."

According to, FamilySearch is "rooted in the Mormon belief that families are meant to be central to our lives and that family relationships are intended to continue beyond this life." The church operates 4,600 "family history centers" in more than 130 countries, and claims to add 400 million new records to the FamilySearch index every year.

The church is also trying to connect all the branches of an online "tree of all humanity," as some have called it, using its monolithic collection of records—which is 32 times the amount of records managed by the Library of Congress—and the collaboration of its online users.

The church's genealogical efforts are not free of controversy, however. In the 1990s, one group of Mormons started adding the names of Jewish Holocaust victims to FamilySearch and posthumously baptizing them as

Mormons. And over the last couple of years, complaints have surfaced that the FamilySearch software won't allow users to report same-sex marriages or the children of same-sex couples.

But to the volunteer prisoners, the program is entirely beneficial.

"For us, it's a way of giving back," said George, a volunteer prisoner at the Summit County jail in Park City. "Being in a place like this where we do time, it's something outside ourselves that we can do and feel like we are helping others."

Prisoners in Utah are also allowed to research their own family history by requesting microfilms. Walt and Karen Coulam, who direct the FamilySearch program at the Utah State prison, deliver microfilms to prisoners there every week.

"The family research gives (prisoners) a new perspective," Walt Coulam said. "They find family members they didn't even know about, some as close as grandparents. They compile all their information in a folder; some have made books they give as holiday gifts or are able to connect with their families in another way."

Researchers have also found psychological benefits to genealogy. Marshall Duke, an Emory University psychologist, has created a family history test he gives to children that includes 20 questions such as "Do you know where your parents met?" and "Do you know some of the jobs your parents had when they were young?"

Duke has found that the higher children score on the family-history test, the better their self-esteem and self-control and the less likely they are to suffer from anxiety.



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