By LINDA BEHRENS
“It’s Canon Law that surrounding parishes take care of those who are in the prisons near them. Those in custody at these prisons are members of the local parish,” says Louis Slapshack, associate coordinator for prison and reentry ministry for the Diocese of Belleville.
Taking care of incarcerated parishioners’ needs—both spiritual and temporal—is the mission of the Prison and Reentry Ministry.
The spiritual isolation brought on by COVID-19 has taken a huge toll on prisoners, Slapshak notes. Prior to COVID-19 mandates, priests, deacons and lay persons could enter the prisons and offer scripture studies or RCIA classes.
These days prisoners receive weekly reflections based on the Sunday readings written by deacons and laypersons in the diocese.
These reflections are sent weekly to correctional centers at Menard, Vienna and Lawrenceville, as well as Big Muddy and Southwestern Illinois Correctional Center, and the St. Clair County Jail.
According to Slapshak, Big Muddy, Centralia and Southwestern Illinois Correctional Center have a weekly rotation of priests to provide Eucharist and Reconciliation when they are not in lockdown because of COVID-19 protocols.
“It would be ideal if two to three priests could be assigned to each corrections facility in the diocese,” Slapshak says.
However several correctional facilities do not have priests providing services at this time, including prisons in Marion, Vienna, Shawnee, Pinckneyville, Lawrenceville and Murphysboro Life Skill Center.
To help ease the isolation prisoners are enduring due to COVID, the Prison Ministry is encouraging Catholics to consider becoming pen pals with incarcerated “parishioners.”
Slapshak says the purpose of this effort is to link those in prison to the outside world in a positive way.
“The hope is that this groundwork will help citizens to a successful reentry into society,” he says. “We are all stakeholders in this effort both as Christians and as fellow citizens.”
While the correctional facilities have been in lockdown during much of the pandemic, the Prison and Reentry Ministry has been busy working with ex-offenders reentering their communities.
One of those ex-offenders, Ernest Rice-Bey, now serves as a reentry program coordinator.
“When God met me, I did a complete turnaround,” says Rice-Bey. “After three prison terms, I knew I was going the wrong way.”
Throughout his five years as a program coordinator with Our Brothers’ Keepers—the group which serves as one half of the Prison and Reentry Ministry—Rice-Bey says he has used his experiences to help other people change their lives, just as he did.
As a program coordinator, Rice-Bey helps with the integration process.
“I began helping people while I was still in prison,” Rice-Bey says. “I actually was overwhelmed by the idea to help other people. It’s a pleasure serving people, especially when they are successful in turning around their lives. It’s a good feeling.”
Rice-Bey assists with the intake process for new clients, mentors clients, and helps them with housing searches or finding drug counseling in order for them to be successfully reintegrated into their community.
Our Brothers’ Keepers was formed in 2014 by retired Bishop Stanley Schlarman and then Diocesan Prison Ministry Director Father Chris Reuter, OFM, as a vehicle to provide support for returning citizens from prisons and to address the trauma of incarceration, the trauma of returning home to their family, and the trauma of returning to their community.
OBK helps returning citizens become productive citizens through an array of reentry services, including counseling, life and employment skills training, and referrals to supportive services in order to build community, family, and faith-based relationships.
This holistic approach to reentry takes into account the entire individual needs that a person reintegrating back into their family and community may need in order to be successful in their transition.
Volunteers teach reading, writing, social skills; basic computer skills; and mentor returning citizens. They also find affordable housing in St. Clair and Madison Counties, search for job opportunities for returning citizens and collect items for hygiene kits.
OBK reaches out to all social and human services providers, faith communities, government agencies and businesses to help in the process of full inclusion.
Michael Schuette is program director at Our Brothers’ Keepers.
“There are two ways to escape the trauma of incarceration,” says Schuette. “With faith and by helping others.”
Schuette shares a story about one man who was afraid to leave his mom’s basement after being in prison.
“He found a Bible in the house and read, ‘I am with you always.’ He remembered his faith and his upbringing and could take the next steps he needed.”
The other way to escape this trauma is by doing good works. “When you are thanked and feeling appreciated, you realize you can do good,” he says.
Schuette recalls the Aristotelian principle that man is a social being.
“We all need the help of others to survive, and we all need to help others,” he says.
He acknowledges that the trauma of prison won’t go away but having faith and helping others will help.
When Schuette was 23, he started teaching literacy in prisons in Illinois. Forty-three years later, he is still advocating for persons in custody to be taught how to read.
“Not being able to read is the number one cause of not being able to get a job after prison,” he says.
Schuette says about two-thirds of those in custody can’t read. He helped develop a program where those in custody who could read become the tutors for those who want to learn how to read.
When tutors came to the prison to teach, the success rate was about 25 percent. When fellow prisoners are the tutors, the success rate is about 97 percent, Schuette says.
“We’ve had a lot of success and many accolades with this program,” he adds.
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For more information contact Pen Pal Ministry, P.O. Box 398, East St. Louis, IL 62202
For more information on Prison and Reentry Ministry of the diocese, visit: