A Catholic Response to Mass Incarceration

An Incarceration Forum will be held 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM on Saturday, August 19, at St. Louis University’s Il Monastero, 3050 Olive Street In St. Louis. This event, which has been planned by criminal justice ministers in the St. Louis Archdiocese and the Belleville Diocese, is timed to coincide with the opening of the annual Congress of the American Correctional Association (August 18-22)—a large national organization for the prison “industry” that is heavily influenced by for-profit corporate interests. The Forum will address various aspects of mass incarceration in the United States and seek to highlight solutions consistent with the social justice teachings of the Church.

 Discussion Topics:

  • School to Prison Pipeline
  • Race/Poverty/Sentencing
  • Health/Mental Health
  • Employment Post-Release

Join us for the Panel Discussion, Breakout Sessions, Group Summaries and Conclusion.

There is no charge, and lunch will be provided. To register and reserve a place, call 314-881-6013 or visit www.cjmstlouis.org.

Filling in the Missing Pieces

The American Correctional Association will hold its 147th annual Congress August 18-22 in St. Louis. This is a huge event that attracts a large number of entities and individuals associated with the ever-growing “industry” of incarceration in our country. The ambitious schedule of presentations and exhibits addresses many, but not all, parts of the picture. We have partnered with other faith-based groups in the Metro-East to add a viewpoint the organizers forgot to add to the Congress program.

Our Belleville Diocese Prison Ministry has been working with the Criminal Justice Ministry in the Archdiocese of St. Louis to plan a concurrent event—a teachable moment—during the ACA’s visit here. With the cooperation of St. Louis University and other community agencies, we will host an “Incarceration Forum” on Saturday, August 19, to draw attention to crucial issues that must be addressed for effective reforms to happen. We will focus attention on the high costs of incarceration to all stakeholders and identify realistic solutions.

The Association has a long and glorious history as criminology’s flagship organization. Through most of those years, in its meetings and scholarly journals, it has been the forum in which the policies and practices of governmental punishment could be professionally and dispassionately debated. But quite predictably, at least in retrospect and in tandem with the exponential growth of the prison industry, the ACA has “morphed” into a trade association for those who are our prisons’ operators and vendors. For the annual Congress it shamelessly recruits corporate sponsors, who in turn use the occasion for contracts and influence. This “Prison-Industrial Complex” has primary allegiance to its shareholders and cannot be expected to endorse meaningful reforms to the criminal justice system.

So there is indeed a missing piece in the puzzle, and your presence at the Incarceration Forum will bear witness to tell the full story. As Upton Sinclair so famously observed a century ago: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”.

The Incarceration Forum will be held 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM on Saturday, August 19, at Il Monastero, 3050 Olive Street in St. Louis. To view the schedule of sessions and the flyer go to the Incarceration Forum: Finding Solutions. To register, go to the CJM website (www.cjmstlouis.org), call 314-881-6013, or send an email to Aaron Laxton (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.). There is no charge, and lunch will be provided.

A Long History of Engagement

The Catholic Church in Illinois can boast of many years of involvement in prison ministry. In addition to the countless professional and volunteer chaplains who have served in places of detention, some forward-thinking individuals in this specialized vocation have shown great wisdom and leadership when these were needed. Now in our own time there is an urgency for the Church to speak prophetically for criminal justice reform.

In 1936 Bishop Joseph Schlarman of Peoria was appointed by Governor Henry Horner to chair a state Commission for the Study of Prison Reform, and its findings and recommendations are eerily appropriate even today. In a comment on gun-control, for example, the Report eloquently states that “With us guns are sold almost as promiscuously and indiscriminately as lolly-pops”. Commenting on the difficulty of focusing attention on root causes and effective solutions, the Commission observed that “The American public is very apathetic to prison administration, but highly sensitive to escapes and crimes committed by parolees or discharged prisoners. (The complete text of the Horner Commission’s report, Why Prisons?, has been republished and is available on request from Our Brothers’ Keepers of Southern Illinois.)

In the 1950’s Franciscan Father Gervase Brinkman, chaplain at Illinois Stateville, was a co-founder of the ACCCA (American Catholic Correctional Chaplains Association), and in 1960 he served a term as President of the ACA (American Correctional Association). In his address to the ACA Congress he challenged its members to “face up to certain facts about ourselves” and then be “willing to make certain very necessary adjustments”. He went on to outline future challenges that he foresaw for all groups working in criminology and concluded with a sober warning about “the complacency of good people”. In the May 1967 issue of Chap-Lett, the ACCCA journal, Brinkman co-authored “Blue Collar Crime: An Essay on Crime and Punishment in the Lower Class”.

In our own era, that has witnessed the exponential growth of mass incarceration, the challenge has been taken up by the Catholic Conference of Illinois. Its ICPJMN (Illinois Catholic and Prison Ministry Network) meets regularly to coordinate the pastoral care of its six dioceses and to advocate for needed reforms. Its members monitor legislation and policies, and they have given oral and written testimony to Governor Bruce Rauner’s Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform.

The Church’s concern has remained constant these many years, but the issues have multiplied. Catholic ministers continue to attend to the spiritual and corporal needs of prisoners, but they are also networking to address the causes of crime and to address its effects at all levels of society

An Ecumenical Call for Reform

The Justice Declaration, an interfaith call for criminal justice reform, was announced on June 20. It is an initiative of religious leaders that calls upon Congress and all in government to institute changes based on Restorative Justice to bring about a system that is “fair and redemptive for all”. Most of the Declaration’s initial signers are members of evangelical Christian churches, but it is an effort that merits the support of all faithful citizens.

You can access the full text of the Declaration at www.justicedeclaration.org. Its ten points are introduced as “an urgent appeal to all who follow the Lord Jesus Christ”. There is no mistaking the document’s stress on needed actions—evidenced in the use of verbs like “Advocate”, “Preach”, “Invest”, “Celebrate”, and others. They are a good summary of the principles that should unite Christians of all denominations and people of other faiths as well. They affirm basic family and social values upon which all can agree. The final point focuses on prisoner reentry, a task that is being addressed by Our Brothers’ Keepers of Southern Illinois.

In all honesty, however, we should take Christian positions on other criminal justice issues about which the Justice Declaration remains either vague or silent. Examples would be capital punishment, racial and ethnic disparities, immigrant detention, and privatized prisons. These tend to be controversial and divisive because they arise from some of deepest and unresolved questions of our national identity, which is precisely why they should be discussed in the public forum. Until now we have not acknowledged the takeover of “inherently governmental” functions by corporate interests.

The Justice Declaration, nevertheless, merits the support of all who share Our Brothers’ Keepers’ vision of successful prisoner reentry. To add your name to the growing list of signers, go to www.justicedeclaration.org and you will be taken (by way of the Prison Fellowship website) to the page “Declare Your Support” with appropriate instructions. 

Taking "Returning Citizens" Re-entry to Another Level








Almost everyone in prison ministry is talking “re-entry” these days. After decades of unacceptable recidivism rates we’ve belatedly come to see that attention must be paid to that critical time of transition from incarceration to freedom. Even some of the more enlightened corrections departments are realizing that, when a sentence is completed, the returning citizen needs something more than a bus ticket home and the parole officer’s phone number.

“Halfway houses” are not something new. Although there have never been enough of them to meet the needs of the growing numbers of parolees, heroic attempts have been made to provide transitional housing and a variety of services. They vary widely in scope and quality, and all are insufficiently funded.

Our Brothers’ Keepers is attempting to address this need in southern Illinois, an area whose urban areas exemplify many of our society’s social problems—poverty, unemployment, infrastructure decay, and certainly the “revolving door” of crime and punishment. It recognizes the futility of recycling human subjects from a badly broken prison system into a dysfunctional home environment and back again. Where does one start restoring all the failed relationships of people and their institutions?

As its name indicates, OBK believes that it begins by accepting the responsibility of caring for one another at the human level. Unlike the biblical Cain who turned the other way in the aftermath of crime, OBK is committed to being the welcoming “innkeeper” who provides a safe haven for the weary travelers of criminal justice. Following the highest principles of Restorative Justice, it will strive to create—as much as possible under one roof—a holistic and therapeutic environment to foster the family life and good citizenship that are essential to successful re-entry.

Although OBK is ecumenical and non-sectarian, there is a spiritual dimension to its manner of going about its work of restoration. Most of its personnel are Christians whose faith bids them emulate Jesus, whose healing ministry always included turning away from wrongdoing and rejoining community. Whether done for human or religious reasons, full reconciliation must always include “table fellowship”.

  • Father Christian Reuter, O.F.M., serves as the Prison Ministry Coordinator for the Diocese of Belleville, IL. His task is to see that there is a Catholic presence in the many federal-state-local correctional centers spread over the 28 counties of Southern Illinois. He himself helps as a prison chaplain in four such institutions, and he is always looking to get more clergy and laity involved in this often-neglected ministry. In this role he is working ecumenically to establish a "returning citizens" re-entry center in Metro-East St. Louis and he has worked to establish a statewide network for the prison ministries of Illinois' six Catholic dioceses. He speaks at local, state and national ministry gatherings on spirituality in the prison setting.