A Long-Overdue Course Correction: Mass Incarceration: Broken & Failed System

  • The National Federation of Priest's Councils asked Fr. Christian Reuter to review Catholic Prison Ministry in the United States and the need for a long-overdue course correction in terms of mass incarceration which is a broken and failed system where thousands of penitentiaries "warehouse" more than two million men and women.

The prison visit has become an obligatory stop on the Pope’s visit to any country. Francis, both in word and in action, has made care for the incarcerated a signature mark of his papacy—one that he stressed often during the recently concluded Year of Mercy. Our challenge, of course, is to add creative actions and sustainability to Francis’ symbolic gestures.

Frankly, I was a bit embarrassed when the Holy Father visited the Philadelphia prison last year; and I hoped he wouldn’t ask too many questions. We put on a grand show for the media: All the dignitaries were present; the inmates wore fresh jumpsuits; and the program unfolded precisely on schedule. Did Francis understand, when he boarded his plane back to Rome, that these are not typical conditions in which we do prison ministry? Does he appreciate the number and size of the issues we face daily?

I got my first clue when a letter arrived from his Apostolic Nuncio. Acting on a request from the Congregation for Clergy, Archbishop Christophe Pierre requested “information about the state of prison ministry in the United States”. He asked for a report to help “prepare specific initiatives in the future that would truly meet the needs of those in prison and jails, their families, and those who minister to them”. Both the hierarchy and the priests who minister with them, I concluded, need to hear the truth.

Mass Incarceration: A Very Broken and Failed System

The statistics of U. S. incarceration are well known. We have 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners. We’ve constructed more than a thousand penitentiaries in recent years to “warehouse” the more than two millionwhom we detain. Well over half of those released will recidivate in three years. The financial costs to taxpayers, fueled by the insatiable greed of the Prison-Industrial Complex, are almost impossible to estimate. One of our bishops several years ago called it an “addiction” and “a public health crisis”. Already in the year 2000 all the bishops of our country spoke of our “broken system” of criminal justice.

It is not just the numbers. Just as we are making some progress on eliminating capital punishment, along come new issues to be faced—solitary confinement, mandatory sentencing, immigrant detention, privatized prisons, physical and mental health care, racial and ethnic inequality.To all of these you can add the problems we’ve always encountered from some anti-Catholic officials.

Prisons have always combined punishment and correction under one roof, and history shows that one or the other will be emphasized at a given time. Although the latest Department of Justice statistics show the first prison population decrease in many years, the election of 2016 seems to predict a greater use of incarceration. Conditions have always been widely varied and challenging in the world of corrections, but the Church of the past was able to respond creatively. We have now arrived, I submit, at a crucial moment of decision. What used to work well is no longer working.

The Catholic Response: Professional Priest Chaplains

Fifty years ago we had enough clergy to fill all our slots—mainstream parishes and many specialized ministries. Imprisoned Catholics were served by ordained priests who were CPE credentialed and salaried by the state. Those chaplains, who served the Church so well, have become a nearly extinct species; and our prison and jail ministries are increasingly relying on deacons and lay ministers. It is telling that the American Catholic Correctional Chaplains Association, once the “official” home of Catholic prison chaplains under the USCCB, was dissolved last year and is searching for a way to reinvent itself. What remains at the national level is a loose collection of individuals and groups who do these kinds of ministries, but nothing close to a coordinated strategy.

We are beginning to realize the need for a comprehensive criminal justice ministry at all levels. We cannot focus just on serving incarcerated individuals; but, as Restorative Justice is teaching us, we must reach out to all those impacted—families and children, victims of crime, system employees, and entire communities. Special skills are required to bring pastoral care and justice advocacy into this troubled environment, which means that they must be included in all of our Church’s ministry formation curricula. Celebrating the sacraments and imparting catechesis are very different behind bars.

When preparing my report to the Apostolic Nuncio, I decided to take a quick tour of the websites of all our dioceses just to see how they described and delivered prison ministry. What I discovered was a “checkered field” of endless variety. They use different vocabularies. Some have stand-alone offices, and others place it under bigger umbrellas (like Catholic Charities or St. Vincent de Paul). Some have well developed prison and jail ministry programs, and others sadly don’t even mention them. In a few places dioceses have banded together under the auspices of their state Catholic Conferences to coordinate their criminal justice work. In general, however, isolation is the name of the game; and there is little sharing of resources and best practices. What is clearly needed is better networking, which is what we theologically proclaim as the Body of Christ—one Church with many kinds of members,

In my own Belleville Diocese we have worked hard to recruit and organize our chaplains and volunteers, and we are actively preparing to establish a prisoner reentry house in our area. At the state level we now have a very proactive criminal justice network that includes all six Illinois dioceses. We are now able to represent the Church to our government and corrections officials, and we provide continuous pastoral care when prisoners are transferred across diocesan boundaries. We have partnered with one of our Catholic universities to provide formation for prison ministry leadership positions and present them to our bishops for endorsement. I shamelessly borrow all the good ideas I learn from colleagues, and I try to share what we have learned with others.

Priests and Their Councils Have Unique Gifts to Offer

I know better than to ask already overburdened priests to take on additional jobs. In a sacramental Church, however, we are the only ones who can bring Eucharist and Reconciliation to its members who are unable to come to our houses of worship. So please, in the name of the Christ who was himself a prisoner, tend to the incarcerated with the same care that you give to the homebound and those in health care facilities. Say yes when you are asked to join a rotation for ministry in the prisons and jails within your parish boundaries. It’s a burden made easier when shared, and you will be pleasantly surprised how rewarding it is to dispense God’s mercy to those who’ve experienced so little of it from others.

American Catholics excel at performing the works of mercy, and we are unmatched when it comes to collecting and distributing mountains of food and clothing. But visiting the imprisoned, the last item on Jesus’ Matthew 25 checklist, is easily overlooked. Before I close, allow me to suggest several ways that the NFPC and its members might help correct this imbalance:

  • See to it that criminal justice has a clearly defined place in your diocese’s administrative structure of offices and ministries. This can be done in many ways, but present conditions suggest that it should not be just one item in a larger list of social justice concerns. There should be one person who is clearly designated by the bishop to coordinate internal communication and external networking with state and national agencies. It will be clear to all, including inmates and their families, that prison ministry is not an extra-curricular activity or an afterthought.
  • Priests are also in a position to increase prison ministry’s visibility. First educate yourselves, and  don’t be shy about including criminal justice issues—including the controversial ones—in your preaching and catechesis. Also see that these are regularly addressed in the context of Catholic  social justice teaching in your diocesan and parish publications. Take advantage of opportunities to have both religious and secular experts speak to church organizations. Catholics are just as prone as everyone else to the misinformation and fear-mongering about crime and punishment that are served up by politicians and the media.
  • A creative and useful way for pastors to help the total effort is to get their parishes sensitized and prepared for prisoner reentry. We who minister to prisoners still serving their sentences work hard at faith development, but we often worry what will become of our efforts after their release. Parolees have many problems to confront during their transition back into society, and the Church does not need to be one of them. Catholic “returning citizens” must be integrated into faith communities that are warm and welcoming, supportive and non-judgmental. This is a grace-filled opportunity for a new lay ministry, especially by men trained to serve as mentors.

As the Year of Mercy 2016 was drawing to a close, Pope Francis asked every diocese in the world to create something new—an institution, a ministry, a movement—so that the Church’s outreach to the dispossessed and marginalized would continue and grow. I am suggesting to my brother priests around the country that criminal justice is a fertile field in which to do exactly that.

(Father Christian Reuter. O.F.M., is Prison Ministry Coordinator for the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois. He can be reached at 618-482-5570 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. The website of its developing "returning citizens"reentry house, Our Brothers’ Keepers of Southern Illinois, is www.obkministry.org.)

Nomination of Father Christian Reuter for 2017-2018 Lumen Christi Award

  • Fr. Christian Reuter, O.F.M., Coordinator of Prison Ministry for Diocese of Belleville, IL is the 2017-2018 nominee for Catholic Extension's Lumen Christi (Light of Christ) Award by the Belleville Diocese. The Lumen Christi nominees are the hidden heroes in our midst who bring light and hope to the forgotten corners of our communities by lifting up the dignity and the human spirit of the outcast, marginalized and poverty stricken.
  • Brian Nelson's letter of support for the nomination of Fr. Christian is just one example of his prison ministry service and the power of faith that can transform lives even under the circumstances of being locked up in Tamms Supermax Prsion, but still allow the "Light of Christ" to shine through into the gray box of his home for 12 years.
  • Brian Nelson currently works as a Prisoners' Rights Coordinator for the Uptown People's Law Center (Chicago, IL) at http://uplcchicago.org/ and his email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

March 17, 2017

Re: Nomination of Father Christian Reuter for the Lumen Christi Award

Dear Nomination Committee Members:

I am writing to express my support for the nomination of Father Christian Reuter for Catholic Extension’s Lumen Christi award. Fr. Chris saved my life, so supporting his nomination for me is a no brainer.

I met Fr. Chris in the midst of the 12 years I spent locked in Tamms Supermax Prison (Tamms, Illinois) that is now closed. Even though it has now been almost six years since I was released from the gray box that was my cell—my entire life—Tamms, most of the time I am asked to speak about my experience, I immediately flashback and begin to relive the horrific experience I suffered in that gray box at Tamms. I become fearful and the psychological torture explodes within me. I can smell the walls. The isolation and torture comes roaring back into my head. I panic.

Yet this was not my reaction when I was asked to write about Fr. Chris and the relationship we developed at Tamms. Instead, I actually smiled. Though we meet in a torture chamber full of psychological horrors, Fr. Chris was the light that washed the gray from the walls of Tamms.

Most civilians that entered Tamms accepted, consciously or unconsciously, the ugly myth that only “the worst of the worst” were housed at Tamms, and viewed everyone at Tamms as “monsters.” Fr. Chris walked into Tamms and treated everyone as a human being. He bestowed upon us what seems like something very simple, but it meant everything, his greatest gift was a smile and kind word for everyone.

Many of the men at Tamms never received a visit, never got any mail, and never saw anyone with whom they could converse like a human being. The loneliness became overwhelming to them. While other visitors to Tamms would ignore these abandoned souls, Fr. Chris would stop and chat for a bit with everyone—Catholic or not.

I fell inside, and only through faith and belief was I able to struggle to endure day to day. I turned to the Catholic faith I learned as a child, and began to explore that faith in a deep and personal way. I discovered who Saint Benedict was having gone to St. Benedict School in Chicago as a child and learned about the rules of St. Benedict, and the version of those rules followed by the Cistercian monks. I decided that I needed to emulate the lives of those monks, and as no work assignments were permitted to prisoners in Tamms, I assigned myself the task of producing a hand written copy of the Bible. It took me endless days, but I completed my task!

Despite my dedication to my religious beliefs, Tamms remained unimaginably oppressive. Inside the gray walls every day was the same, and every day was spent alone. I fell into deep depression at times and attempted suicide several times. Men around me engaged in horrible self-mutilation. Some screamed incessantly; others never left their cells for weeks on end. I was truly living in an unrelenting, constant house of torture.

The only exceptions were the days Fr. Chris visited. Those days were great days even inside the belly of the beast. Not only would Fr. Chris come to see me and the other men at Tamms and treated me and everyone else likes human beings. Fr. Chris also brought the Light of the World (Holy Communion) to me. As a Catholic seeing the work that Fr. Chris did for everyone being tortured in solitary confinement, including those from all faiths, and those without faith, conveyed strength beyond measure and love beyond measure. At the lowest depths of depression from all the ugliness around me, hearing Fr. Chris come on the wing would wipe all of it away.

As the IDOC strived to knock us down, I was picked up with overwhelming strength by the kindness that Fr. Chris shared. Our talks about faith and beliefs encouraged me to stand tall in the darkness and to grow closer to Our Lord. With a firm hand, Fr. Chris would make the corrections officers open the chuckhole (food tray slot) so that we could do the Act of Reconciliation and Holy Communion. Even the hardest officers that tried to say no and refused to open the chuckhole for Fr. Chris, they ultimately gave in to his demand to be able to touch me, to perform the rites properly.

As I copied every word of the Holy Bible, Fr. Chris and I discussed if anyone else had ever done such a feat. I learned a lot watching and talking with Fr. Chris and still do to this day. Something everyone should take from Fr. Chris is that no matter how ugly, depressing or terrifying a place is, by treating everyone like a human being and never accepting those who would falsely label someone as less than human, you can become a beacon of light to wash away evil and oppression.

Fr. Chris brought Holy Communion into Tamms so that I could be whole again. Only by experiencing the depth of ugliness/torture being inflicted upon me can a person grasp the true meaning of Fr. Chris’s visits. A blessing beyond compare is what Fr. Chris is! I can’t imagine anyone more deserving of recognition.

Sincerely,

Brian Nelson

2017 Volunteer of the Year: Terri Bauer at Southwestern IL Correctional

  • Southwestern IL Correctional Center (SWICC) named Terri Bauer as the 2017 Volunteer of the Year for her more than 5 years of service as coordinator of the 180 New Beginning program sponsored by the Catholic Diocese of Belleville, IL. Terri attended the IDOC 2017 Volunteer of the Year ceremony in Springfield, IL on April 10 and was awarded the Volunteer of the Year plaque for her work at Southwestern Correctional at the SWICC volunteer banquet on Apirl 27th. Terri spoke at the banquet of her call to service and how her journey led her to be open to prison ministry as a result of her faith, compassion and courage when asked to take on the responsibility for the 180 New Beginnings program.
  • Terri's story as told below includes the many challenges that we all face in living out the call to serve in anyway the outcast, marginalized and downtrodden of our society. 

April 27, 2017

Re: Terri Bauer's New Beginnings in Prison Ministry

Terri says her volunteer work started "at a local nursing home, I volunteered every week, visiting residents who had no regular visitors.  I did this work for 20 years until the nursing home closed." Terri is originally from the Chicago area, where she was born and raised. She moved to Southern Illinois in 1986 with her husband Fred, who is also a volunteer at SWICC. Terri is a long time member of St. Nicholas Church in O’Fallon, IL where she says “the Lord found many opportunities for me to serve Him. I served in many capacities and joined many Bible studies."

In 2011, Terri’s son still in Chicago was going through a divorce, bankruptcy, was laid off from his work; and living in a friends basement. He was having difficulty seeing his children and the situation went on for four long months. The ongoing situation precipitated a crisis of faith for Terri, not being able to be there for her son and grandchildren. She said: “I felt desolate, but found great strength in a book I happened to find.  It was called, Step by Step to Calvary.  I meditated on one Station of the Cross each day, putting myself into the story, walking with Christ to Calvary.  That changed my perspective on my life and I wanted to serve God more than ever.  I had fallen in love with Him.  Things changed.  My son found a good job, a place to live, and was able to get joint custody of his children”.  Later that summer, Terri wrote an article for the world-wide publication, The Word Among Us, about her son’s divorce, with the pain and struggle she sustained to rebuild her faith.

Unknowingly, at the time, she did not foresee that the article would eventually lead her to do volunteer work with prison ministry at SWICC. It happened that Terri’s membership at St Nicholas became the link to another member at St Nicholas who was deeply involved in prison ministry, Consuelo Munoz, Ph.D.,(2011 Volunteer of the Year recipient) who helped to develop the 180 A New Beginning program at SWICC, a combination of Bible study and Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, (RCIA).

Terri’s world was about to change again and the subsequent impact of that change would have in the lives offenders at SWICC. Terri’s preparation for SWICC and prison ministry was complete, like throwing a pebble into a calm pool of water and the rippling effect. Consuelo approached Terri to join the team at SWICC after reading Terri’s article in the The Word Among Us. Terri said: “Consuelo Munoz, a fellow parishioner at St. Nicholas Church in O’Fallon, IL, read my article and called me one day in the spring of 2012.  I didn’t even know her.”

She asked if I would help her with the 180 program and possibly take over when she planned to move to Texas.  That was the start of my prison ministry and God’s powerful action in my life.  I put my heart and soul into serving the Lord.  Ever since I was in junior high, I pledged to serve the Lord all of my life.  I married and had two sons and was a stay at home mom while they grew up.  Terri reflects, “I think God was preparing me for prison ministry by learning the beauty of the Bible and what I love to do is share the Bible with the prison inmates.  The Bible is so rich in God’s love for us and I wanted to pass that on to them." That was in 2012 and Terri has been a volunteer here at SWICC now for over five years! Terri is one of our best regular volunteers; please join me in congratulating her and accepting SWICC’s nomination for Volunteer of the Year 2017. Terri said in a corresponding email,Thank you for selecting me as Volunteer of the Year.  It is a very great honor to be chosen.  I believe it is God’s way of urging me on."

IDOC Supports: SOARING INMATES HELPING INMATES

  • Poverty Services an agency of Catholic Charities of Southern Illinois, Diocese of Belleville, IL through the leadership of Michael Schuette has developed the Soaring Inmates Helping Inmates program. This inmate literacy program was initiated over 10 years ago in the IDOC Centralia Correctional Center and later in Big Muddy Correctional. Soaring Inmates Helping Inmates encourages literate inmates to tutor reading impaired inmate students while in prison. Inmate students quickly realize they can learn to read and thereby break their cycle of poverty by being able to apply for jobs and continue to learn new skills. The inmate tutor also gains confidence and the realization they can significantly help others. This is a win-win situation. 
  • The IDOC recognizes that the inmate tutors have been up to 96% successful based on data in helping inmate students learn to read (averaging about 500 inmates per year). Soaring Inmates Helping Inmates is the #1 program in the United States to advance the inmate reading skills.
  •  IDOC is currently working to roll-out the Soaring Inmates Helping Inmates program to all Illinois State prisons over the next 3 years and the IDOC letter of support by Gladyse Taylor, IDOC Assistant Director indicates the need and success that can be achieved in reading literacy.

December 26, 2016

(Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), Springfield, IL)

Re: A Letter in Support of SOARING INMATES HELPING INMATES in the Illinois Department of Corrections

Studies who individuals who do not have adequate reading skills are unlikely to keep (must less get) a job paying gainful living wages and benefits. There is is a direct correlation between reading impairment, unemployment, and poverty. Approximately, 23% of our general public in Illinois are reading impaired and 70% of those imprisoned in Illinois are reading impaired. In addition, some 61% of residents in our poorest counties are reading impaired. The inmates' gainful employment challenge is compounded with a prison record. Studies show if inmates do not start learning to read while in the correctional center they are highly likely to repeat offend. 

The purpose of this letter is to encourage your support of SOARING INMATES HELPING INMATES of Illinois. This very low cost, long tested program is the most successful program in the USA to help up to 96% of impaired inmates advance their reading skills. SOARING INMATES HELPING INMATES also includes a "returning citizen" component to continue education, along with job training upon release from imprisonment. The success of the program is attributable to the "peer-to-peer" concept of encouraging literate inmates to tutor illiterate inmate students.

SOARING INMATES HELPING INMATES will substantially increase the likelihood that most Illinois inmates will break their cycles of poverty and imprisionment. Most never realize they could read with no idea to what they were missing and now amazingly learn to read in just weeks. Like the blind who could not see, they quickly realize many new doors are open to them and excitedly advance multiple grades each year. Just as importantly, the inmate tutors gain a feeling of worth and self-esteem as their unique abilities reach and change inmate students' lives forever. Inmate recidivism rates will decline substantially. The IDOC has committed to permit, support, and assist the advancement of SOARING INMATES HELPING INMATES into all Illinois state prison correctional centers.

Of course all of this is very important to the inmates (who are societies' most disenfranchised citizens). But just as importantly, reduced inmates recidivism also reduces costs to law enforcement, court systems, the general public, and will significantly reduce IDOC costs. Most everyone knows the IDOC is the second highest budget line item cost to the State of Illinois, second only to pensions. The change to inmate lives comes so quickly and easily, is needed, and lowers cost. Why didn't we realize this option sooner? Nearly everyone stands to gain from this program and hopefully everyone will help!

Respectfully Submitted, 
 
Gladyse Taylor
Assistant Director
Department of Corrections
  

Our Brothers' Keepers - 2017 (May Update)

 

OBK Board of Directors – President Election

The OBK Board of Directors was notified by Michael Berens our Acting President that he could no longer continue in that capacity as a result of a family illness that required his complete attention. The Board accepted his resignation with regret for his outstanding contribution and dedication to forming and carrying  out the OBK mission. The Board will continue to keep in contact and update him on our progress as we continue to move the project forward.

The OBK Board continued by opening the nomination process following the standard protocol with David Rands and Michael Davis nominated. David Rands declined the nomination because of his heavy work load as a special prosecutor for the Illinois State’s Attorney Office. Michael Davis accepted the nomination and was elected by a voice vote of the Board as President of the Board of Directors effective May 20, 2017.

OBK Board of Directors – Vice President Election

The OBK Board Vice President Dcn. John Fridley is completing his term commitment in June, 2017 and will not be returning at that time due to travel requirement. The Board is thankful for Dcn. John’s service during the OBK start-up and implementation of the many policies that provide the operational base of the group today. A special thanks for his many contribution to prison ministry in the Diocese of Belleville through his work at SWICC and the RCIA.

The OBK Board continued by opening the nomination process following the standard protocol with Louis Slapshak nominated for Vice President. Louis accepted the nomination and was elected by a voice vote of the Board as Vice President of the Board of Directors and remains as the Secretary of the Board effective May 20, 2017.

OBK Property-Site Selection

During the month OBK was working to obtain an ESL property that would be donated and was of sufficient acreage that the OBK Home and community garden concept would be a reality. This property was investigated following the OBK protocol and during the course of the review was found not acceptable and no further work was done.

In April, OBK had reviewed the 36 property sites that were presented by the ESL Planning Dept. and they were not found suitable as a site. In order to continue the search, the St. Clair County office of Mapping & Platting (Karen Butler, Chief Cartographer) was contacted for a listing of parcels owned by St. Clair County Trustee within the city limits of East St. Louis. The listing is current as of May 25, 2017 and included 3,434 parcels with the location, acreage and other site options listed. Ms. Butler indicated that after May 22, 2017, there would be another 2000 parcels that would revert back to St. Clair County, but they would not be on the list until September, 2017 due to office process work that would need to be completed

In order to move this St. Clair County parcel review forward, John Laker (OBK Property Manager) contacted Mark Kern (St. Clair County Board Chairman) to obtain information about how to proceed with this property site selection based on the large number of potential sites. This resulted in OBK making contact with the Joseph E. Meyer & Associates (President Whitney Stohmeyer) to assist with finding property options for a building site. Joseph E. Meyer & Associates manages delinquent property taxes for St. Clair County and properties not purchased by tax buyers at the County Tax Sales are enrolled in the trustee program and managed by Joseph E. Meyer & Associates. After the redemption period expires on delinquent properties, Joseph E. Meyer & Associates obtains tax deeds on behalf of the county and sells the properties at public auction. These auctions are conducted verbally or by sealed bids each quarter and the listing of property for auction can be reviewed at Illinois Tax Sale (www.iltaxsale.com). OBK will continue to work with Joseph E. Meyer to find suitable property sites in East St. Louis for investigation as a site for the OBK Campus.