‘We keep trying’; from the darkness of Purgatory, ministry shows inmates the light

Former Los Angeles County deputy sheriff Klair Mendenhall leading inmates in a prayer at Purgatory Correctional Facility, Washington, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Joe Slobig, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Three square meals and four white walls with nothing but time to stare at them and think about the wrongs they may have done. On a good day, an inmate at Purgatory Correctional Facility might get a phone call, an extra serving of food or 10 minutes of silence alone in the shower, but for many, it’s mostly just regret.

L-R: Purgatory Correctional Facility Ministry members Klair Mendenhall, Steven King and Gary Hughes outside the jail at Thursday service, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Joe Slobig, St. George News

Being held at Purgatory isn’t meant to be a picnic out with friends – rightfully so – and though many prisoners will admit they are getting exactly what they deserve, the chance for redemption can often feel futile. Change can seem impossible for some, but in the opinion of a few men who volunteer at the facility every week, it is never too late to improve your life and make amends.

In 2005, after fervent praying about the possibility of starting a Bible outreach program at the local jail, Calvary Chapel St. George pastor Rick Nerud and Bikers for Christ president Chuck Wolcott sent out a plea for volunteers to help out, and Joe Slobig and Klair Mendenhall stepped forward to answer the call. The pair have been at it ever since.

Thursdays are one of the few days of hope at Purgatory, the jail ironically built in an area named Purgatory Flats by early Mormon pioneers in the 1860s after having a really bad time getting out of the “hellish” area. Over 150 years later, not much has changed, and for some inmates, “getting out” and being successful would be almost impossible without the guidance of the ministering of Slobig and Mendenhall.

Mendenhall told St. George News he doesn’t really know why it is important for him to minister to the inmates. As a retired deputy sheriff from Los Angeles County, it would seem that hanging out with prisoners would be the last thing he would want, but after the first time he tried it, he said he just knew it was something he was meant to do.

The service usually lasts an hour and a half, beginning with prayer introductions, praise and worship before breaking out the 60-inch screen, where the inmates can follow along with scrolling lyrics and sing their praises to God.

Slobig said this is a sound that seems a little out of place in the halls of the jail.

A former inmate hugs Klair Mendenhall after just being baptized, date and locatation unspecified | Photo courtesy of Joe Slobig, St. George News.

“To the other inmates, (the singing) is something unusual that they don’t hear too often,” he said. “It’s guys and other guys. … Their wives aren’t watching and their girlfriends aren’t watching, so they don’t hold anything back. It’s really quite exciting to hear them praising the Lord.”

Over the years Slobig said he has seen the tremendous impact the ministry has had on dozens of lives that most in the public would have said would be better to write off and forget about.

He said he remembers one inmate named Stacey who came to the service with a belligerent “tough guy” attitude and who was probably just attending the service as an excuse to get out of the cell block because it was something different. Slobig said he knew Stacey wasn’t really looking for the Lord.

“It was not too long after that that he did receive Jesus as his savior, and he stayed with the ministry for maybe six months or so,” Slobig said, adding that upon his release, Stacey began attending regular church services. Before long he was married, had started his own drywall business and was on the path toward a decent future and leading what Slobig called “a very normal – God centered life.”

Mendenhall said he feels really honored – and very pleased – when one of the guys he has interacted with can make it on the outside.

“It feels fantastic if we can change them and they stay changed,” he said, “but as you probably know, the recidivism rate is pretty high.”

Mendenhall said with several issues plaguing inmates upon release, including getting a driver’s license and having the ability to get around easily, it can be pretty hard for guys to get out and make any headway. He said:

We keep trying. When we have one that does, we’re very proud of him, and we just wish and pray that all the rest can do the same. We sure appreciate them. We have quite a few friends that we have made over the years. I’d like to see every one of them that we’ve had a chance to talk to make a go of it. That would make us all happy.

Mendenhall’s efforts have not only been important to hundreds of inmates, but they have also been recognized by the surrounding community. He was recently honored by the Color Country Chapter Daughters of the American Revolution with the 2018 Community Service Award at their annual luncheon.

Klair Mendenhall is presented with the 2018 Community Service Award by Color Country Chapter Daughters of the American Revolution regent Valerie King, date and location unspecified | Photo courtesy of Valerie King, St. George News

Regent Valerie King presented him with a certificate for his selfless dedication to the program despite the physical limitations he is now facing as a result of being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2008. King said it can be very frustrating for her friend, who is very intelligent and was so active during his life but must now be transported to the jail in a wheelchair.

King said Mendenhall’s days are filled with more bad than good, but on his good days he will call, ready to minister, and say, “Come down and get me. I’m ready to go.”

He has touched the hearts of hundreds and hundreds of guys over the last 13 years,” King said, adding that several inmates wanted to express their feelings about Mendenhall in advance of the award presentation.

“When Klair’s not here there’s a void in our fellowship,” an inmate named Michael said. “You can see his love for us in his eyes and you can hear it in his words.”

Another inmate echoed these sentiments.

Klair Mendenhall ministering to an inmate during a barrier session at Purgatory Correctional Facility, Hurricane, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Joe Slobig, St. George News

“Klair is a big reason I look forward to this fellowship. I thank God (that) he has chosen Klair to be my teacher.”

Slobig said he believes Mendenhall has a bigger impact than most of the other volunteers because of the changes he has undergone during their 13 years ministering together. He said Mendenhall was a very robust, very tough guy before his Parkinson’s diagnosis. 

Some days even his speech can be slurred, Slobig said, and though he still has the same heart for the inmates, he is not able to express it and participate in the same way that he used to, but he loves to come and will be part of that ministry until his final breath. Slobig said the inmates understand what Mendenhall is going through right now, and they know he must really love them to open himself up like that.

“I think most of them, me included, would just want to be in a corner of the house to myself and not let anyone see the condition I’m in,” he said, “but Klair’s beyond that, and he’s more concerned about about the inmates than his own image.”

Mendenhall said people have a tendency to make things look easy on the outside, and it’s a whole lot different being incarcerated on the inside looking out.

“It isn’t that easy. They have to work hard, and we try to keep telling them that,” he said. “Don’t think it’s going to be a piece of cake. You’ve got to work hard.”

Klair Mendenhall (center) and members of the Purgatory Correctional Facility Ministry, Hurricane, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Joe Slobig, St. George News

For Mendenhall, the Daughters of the American Revolution award was quite unexpected, and he said he thought that many other people should have been recognized before him, including his friends that he has worked with in the ministry.

“They’re the ones that pick me up and get me around from place to place anymore,” he said. “I haven’t been able to do much of anything.”

Slobig said the ministry plans to keep serving the inmates for many years to come and hopefully change a lot more lives, because he knows the inmates appreciate the chance to worship.

“They’re seeing something they don’t see in the cell blocks and that’s people who genuinely love them unconditionally,” he said, adding that they will be there “up until the Lord comes for us, that’s for sure.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews | @andrewjpinckney

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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  • ladybugavenger January 13, 2019 at 1:23 pm

    This is fantastic

  • Comment January 13, 2019 at 2:23 pm

    As an unbeliever I wish there were more programs in place to help reintegrate inmates that would not be religion-based. A support structure is important for ex-cons, but I’m not sure religion is the best angle to use. An interesting thing I’ve read is the % of convicts that will claim to be christians. I hear the number is extremely high. I find that quite ironic.

    • ladybugavenger January 13, 2019 at 4:33 pm

      God is the only way out Bob.
      Most choose what they know- thug life.
      That’s why you dont have a high number of people who stay rehabilitated. The highest rehab rate I’ve seen (in 2015)was 23% at the Salvation Army Rehab Center (Arc). Do not know what it is now. But people will go back to what is familiar like a dog eating it’s own vomit.

      • Redbud January 13, 2019 at 9:53 pm

        I agree LBA, God is the way! Every person is born instilled with a spiritual manifestation that there is a power higher than them. It is up to that person to choose how they feel about that, and choose what they believe in. It’s not a feeling that can be denied or dismissed. Despite that, I respect those who choose not to believe.

        • theone January 14, 2019 at 9:58 am

          I know people can change for the better without religion so this is plain nonsense. For you to arrogantly proclaim every person is born instilled with a spiritual manifestation is even a bigger bunch of nonsense.
          Shame on you for making any claim for what is within me or anyone. You most certainly have zero respect for nonbelievers with that incredible assertion. Statements like yours only help to prove what a bunch of manipulating nonsense comes from religion. There is no God and you know you can’t prove there is, so leave me out of your BS!

          • Redbud January 14, 2019 at 2:33 pm

            I never said people can’t change without God. I stand by my claims however. Just like I can’t prove there is a God, you can’t prove there isn’t one. It is everyone’s right to deny that which is in themselves. It’s called free agency.

          • ladybugavenger January 14, 2019 at 2:50 pm

            You’re right Theone, religion wont change anyone.
            Jesus is not a religion

          • ladybugavenger January 14, 2019 at 2:54 pm

            You dont have to choose Jesus Theone. I mean, thats the beauty of God. He doesnt force you to love him. But you know the consequence by not choosing and it’s your life. I would never want to force anything on you. Much love Theone ❤

  • Comment January 13, 2019 at 2:32 pm

    And I fully admit I wouldn’t know where to even begin to teach convicts about the importance of good character and living a moral life. I don’t even know if these are things that can be “taught”. Getting people off the drugs seems to be the foundation they need to live a non-criminal lifestyle, but I also realize convicts often have a lot of mental issues, whether actual mental illness or traumatic childhoods or whatever else. I believe this is why getting people off drugs is so difficult. The drug use is perhaps only a symptom of deeper issues. Who knows.

  • Joe January 13, 2019 at 9:31 pm

    Working with Klair in the Lord’s ministry at Purgatory is a priceless blessing; both to the inmates and to the men who minister alongside of him. I’d like to mention those ministry members who were not mentioned in the article. They are; Jim Godfrey, Larry Reneau, Doug Wellman, Vince Valance, Jim Goodman, Tim Cordon, and Steve King.

    I’d also like to correct a mistake in the 2nd photo. The man in the gray shirt next to Klair is Gary Hughes, not Joe Slobig.

  • Mike P January 14, 2019 at 10:24 am

    Well, they are a captive audience. Usually there’s some incentive to attend. These programs are quite common, it’s similar to the homeless shelters in California that promise a meal, but in order to get the meal you have to sit thru a sermon. I’ve seen interviews where some of these homeless people say they no longer go to these shelters because they say it’s not worth having to sit thru all the sermons.

    • ladybugavenger January 14, 2019 at 7:52 pm

      Yep, it’s extortion

    • ladybugavenger January 14, 2019 at 7:57 pm

      I stopped attending a calvary CV h as Pell because their food ministry became an extortion. Sit through service before you can be fed. I thought it was awful and I told them too. They said, well they need to hear the Word, we are giving them food. They mentioned people taking advantage. I said oh my gosh, its food, its extortion and it’s not right, Never went back.

      • Comment January 14, 2019 at 10:36 pm

        Churches are businesses first and foremost, lba. if they gave stuff away for free they’d quickly go out of business.

        and what “attending a calvary CV h as Pell”?

        calvary chapel? what went wrong there?

        • ladybugavenger January 16, 2019 at 7:07 am

          Lol. It did go wrong, didn’t it.

  • LunchboxHero January 14, 2019 at 10:35 am

    “Three square meals and four white walls … On a good day, an inmate might get a phone call, an extra serving of food or 10 minutes of silence alone in the shower… ”

    Poor things. Is this an episode of Locked up Abroad? What sort of inhumane treatment is this?!

    • Comment January 14, 2019 at 12:21 pm

      You’ve never been in jail have you?

      • LunchboxHero January 15, 2019 at 11:52 am

        And you don’t get sarcasm, do you? 🙂

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