Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of Steering Committee member, Burkely Hermann, National Security Archive. It was originally published on the Issues & Advocacy blog on May 27, 2022.
Hello everyone! In today’s post I’d like to share a project that I’ve been working off-and-on since 2019, in my spare time, which relates to digitization, archival ethics, and access. Since then, I have been using MuckRock to request documents from county jails and state prisons about FamilySearch’s program to have inmates index public records, like censuses and military records, which are then used by genealogists and the general public. In order to put this project into context, I’d like to give some background to highlight why this project matters.
In February 2020, in my first article on the closure of the National Archives facility in the Seattle area, I noted that some U.S. legislators criticized the partnership between the National Archives and FamilySearch, who stated that this partnership, meant to digitize records, has not “resulted in actual access to records that have been prioritized by stakeholders.”
Currently, NARA’s webpage on digitized microfilm publications and original records states that digitization partners like Ancestry, Fold3 (owned by Ancestry), and FamilySearch “have digitized microfilm publications and original records from NARA’s holdings and made them available on their websites.” NARA has had a partnership with FamilySearch since 2005, with NARA describing them as having a “clear focus on records of interest to genealogists.” The current partnership agreement with FamilySearch will remain in effect until NARA or FamilySearch terminates it, which is unlikely.
All of this matters because FamilySearch, a division of the Mormon Church (LDS), is using inmates to index many of these public records. This means that the records you might be using on Ancestry, which FamilySearch shares records with, or on the latter site, have likely been indexed by inmates.
It is important to keep in mind that jails and prisons are not the same. Jails are run by counties or cities, housing those with short-term convictions or awaiting trial. Prisons are operated on the federal or state level, with inmates who have longer-term convictions.
I became interested in this topic after reading Shaun Bauer’s short article in Mother Jones in August 2015 entitled “Your Family’s Genealogical Records May Have Been Digitized by a Prisoner”. Unfortunately, Bauer never wrote a follow-up piece, and some genealogists, like assorted people on social media and Megan Smolenyak, more prominently, defended the indexing, claiming that a “few key aspects” were left out.
In contrast, Jarrett M. Drake, a Harvard University PhD candidate who focuses on “archival, educational, and organizing projects that pertain to prison abolition,” argued, in a 2020 book, Paths to Prison: On the Architectures of Carcerality, that the national and state governments that partner with FamilySearch certain “untold millions of dollars” by sharing their records for indexing and digitization, and argued that “millions of archival records have been made available by incarcerated labor.”
Although my research on this subject is still ongoing, there is clear evidence that sometime in the 1980s, LDS opened a Family History Center at Utah State Prison, followed by one at California’s Tehachapi State Prison in 1989. In February 2001, the Chicago Tribune acknowledged that the Freedman’s Bureau records, which are popular especially with Black genealogists, were collected and culled by 550 inmates at the South Point Correctional Facility at Utah State Prison.
Smolenyak’s interview with one of the indexers, Blaine Nelson, said that the indexing of the Freedman’s Bureau records took eleven years, 600 inmates, and “over 700,000 volunteer hours.” He declared proudly that, by February 2001, “some 480,000 Freedman’s Bank records had been extracted and indexed.” This means that one of the “richest databases for African-American research” as Ed Lunt, who helped establish the indexing program at the Utah State Prison in 1990 with his wife Penney, described it, was only possible due to the large amount of unpaid inmate labor.
The indexing did not end there. It has continued since then, with millions of names indexed by inmates, not only in Utah, but in other states, like Idaho and Arizona. Some even declared that this indexing means that prisoners are “working to strengthen everyone’s family tree.”
In 2021, Steve Collings, a product manager for the FamilySearch Correctional Services program, stated that LDS had “35 different facilities” with where inmates do indexing across the Mountain West, including Utah, Wyoming, and Arizona, with plans to expand nationwide, then worldwide. Whether the indexing provides “personal growth” to inmates as LDS claims, or not, LDS has been mostly tight-lipped in providing many details about the indexing and noting the exact locations where LDS has contracted prison indexing.
In my research, I’ve found that five jurisdictions in Utah currently have contracts with LDS to have inmates index records: Box Elder County, Cache County, Duchesne County, Kane County, and Summit County, as I note on the “Documents received” sheet within my “FamilySearch and prisons” spreadsheet. Sevier County presumably also has a contract, but I have not received documents from them. The most recent one I received, for Box Elder, shows that FamilySearch is all in on the inmate indexing as it was signed earlier this year by Stephen Valentine, who is the Senior Vice President of FamilySearch International!
From my requests I also learned that there are genealogy programs in Idaho prisons, but they reportedly have no policy related to the program. The same is the case for the Utah Department of Corrections. I also received redacted emails from the Washington Department of Corrections showing communications about Mormon volunteers coming to the state’s prison facilities. Otherwise, I learned that Beaver and Washington counties have volunteer programs but reportedly do not have records of that program.
In order to do these requests, I’ve been using MuckRock, which allows you to submit freedom of information requests to any governmental agency within their databases and keep all of the interactions public, or even private. Unfortunately, it has been somewhat costly to do this work, costing $5.00 per record request, making it hard for those without adequate financial resources to make these record requests and hopefully receive documents which can become public, even if they are heavily redacted. Where I work, the National Security Archive, has the same goal, but on a much larger scale, with various projects and experts on certain subject areas.
As I continue my research, with the impending end of requests to county jails in Utah, I’ll be trying to find out more about this program beyond Utah, to other states. I’ve done this a little with requests to counties in Wyoming, Arizona, Nevada, and other states such as Colorado and Arkansas. Although I’m not sure what I will learn about this indexing program going forward, and how widespread it is, I am confident that it will remain a learning experience which will inform people, particularly archivists and librarians, about those who index the public records which are used on a daily basis. Hopefully, it will also encourage a push for a larger NARA budget, so that more digitization of their records can be done in-house rather than contracted out to FamilySearch or for conditions be put on the next agreement to prohibit indexing by inmates.
© 2022-2023 Burkely Hermann. All rights reserved.