At their September board meeting the Directors of Our Brothers’ Keepers made a strategic decision to move forward their plans for prisoner reentry in East St. Louis. Readers of this newsletter know that for several years our fledgling ministry has been focused on property acquisition and construction plans. It has been a long and arduous process, with both advances and setbacks, to do so legally and properly.

Since quality reentry services are so urgently needed, a decision was reached to place first priority on providing the program for returning citizens and that this outweighs any considerations of land and buildings. Accordingly, both in its fund-raising efforts and in its ministry planning, OBK will give its first attention to delivery of case management, employment readiness, personal counseling, and other services vital for the return to society. It is estimated that about $100,000 must be raised to launch the first year of operation.

The search for a physical location goes on as we continue our conversations with the officials and citizens of East St. Louis. Perhaps it is the Lord’s will that Our Brothers’ Keepers experience their own homelessness before attempting to solve that of others.

OBK Board of Directors

On October 4th we celebrate Francis of Assisi, founder of the religious order in which I’m a brother and one of the most popular saints of the Church. Francis is also one of our most misunderstood saints. He is remembered as a lover of nature, and people bring their animals to be blessed on his feast day. Few are aware that Francis had a tougher side to his personality.

He lived 1182 to 1226 in what is now central Italy and, after a pampered childhood, decided to pursue glory as a knight in shining armor. Francis’ military career was—shall we say—both short and undistinguished. In a skirmish with the neighboring city-state of Perugia he was captured and deposited in a prison. His biographers don’t say much about that unhappy year or so of confinement, but we do know that after release he returned to Assisi disillusioned and searching for a new direction. It was during this period that he heard the call to embrace poverty and the Gospel of Jesus.

What a perfect patron saint for prisoner re-entry! The town of Assisi was apparently not prepared to help its returning citizens, but God and the Church teamed up to make it happen. Francis didn’t readjust overnight, and it took a series of conversion experiences to get and focus his attention. He quickly began to realize that he should surround himself with a band of brothers for mutual support. Nine hundred years later this is the same re-entry formula that is guiding Our Brothers’ Keepers of Southern Illinois.

Fr. Christian Reuter, OFM

This is the title of a book study series that Father Chris Reuter is offering this fall at Immaculate Conception Parish in Columbia IL, where he serves as Sacramental Minister. It was designed to attract those "who have more questions than answers and are comfortable with ambiguity." A group of about 25 adults is gathering in a series of six sessions to identify and wrestle with some of the most vexing issues of our time - under the categories of History, Language, Technology, Economics, Politics, and Religion. As the advertising flyer advised, "Warning: This is not for the fainthearted or for anyone with a need to be always right and certain!"

The study group is using two current books to start its discussions: The Market as God by Harvey Cox and The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. Reprinted here is Father Chris' review of the Cox book, which was printed in the September 21 issue of The Messenger (newspaper of the Belleville Catholic Diocese).

Book Review by Christian N. Reuter, O.F.M.

Harvey Cox, The Market as God.  Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Gov. Bruce Rauner has signed a bill into law creating a program to teach Illinois prison inmates’ business skills.

The goal of the legislation is to decrease recidivism by providing inmates with opportunities to acquire business skills for use after release. The legislation establishes a 5 year pilot program similar to one already in place in the Texas Department of Corrections.

Under the Prisoner Entrepreneur Education Program (PEEP), inmates would learn business skills including budgeting, computer skills, and public speaking. The business skills training would supplement the Illinois Department of Corrections' existing training in a number of vocations such as automotive technology, cosmetology, print management, welding and many others.

House Bill 698 (effective August 24, 2017) establishes a 5 year pilot project to provide inmates with useful business skills for use after release from prison in an effort to reduce recidivism rates for self-motivated individuals. The PEEP consists of a rigorous curriculum, and participants will be taught business skills, such as computer skills, budgeting, creating a business plan, public speaking, and realistic goal setting. Inmates who complete the PEEP will be awarded a Certificate of Completion. The General Assembly may also establish post release assistance for those completing the program that could include drafting a resume and cover letter, searching for employment, networking events, and mock interviews. Funding for PEEP will come from money appropriated to the IDOC for this purpose.

The inmates in PEEP must never have been convicted of a major sex offense, vulnerable victim’s sex offense, or child pornography.

Inmates who obtain the Certificate of Completion in the program will retain rights, control and possession of all products created by the participant during the course of the program. The rights shall include intellectual property rights and rights in trade secrets. The IDOC shall have no rights to sell, use, distribute, market, possess, or control any product created by a participant during the course of the Prisoner Entrepreneur Education Program.

 

It was no coincidence that an Incarceration Forum billed as “A Catholic Response to Mass Incarceration” was held on August 19th the same weekend and in the same city as the annual Congress of the American Correctional Association (ACA), a large national organization for the prison industry.

Criminal justice ministers in the Belleville Diocese, St. Louis Archdiocese, Criminal Justice Ministry, St. Louis University, and Justice Leadership USA planned the concurrent event – a teachable moment, they called it – during the ACA’s August 18-22, 2017 meeting in St. Louis.

According to Father Christian Reuter, OFM, coordinator of the Belleville Diocese Prison Ministry and Our Brothers’ Keepers of Southern Illinois, the ACA is a huge event that attracts a large number of companies and thousands of individuals associated with the ever-growing industry of incarceration in the United States.

The ACA has long been criminology’s flagship organization. Through most of it history, in its meetings and scholarly journals, ACA has been the forum in which the policies and practices of governmental punishment could be professionally and dispassionately debated. But as the prison industry has grown exponentially, the ACA has morphed into a trade association for prison operators and vendors.

“For the annual Congress of the American Correctional Association it shamelessly recruits corporate sponsors, who in turn use the occasion for contracts and influence,” said Father Reuter. “This prison-industrial complex has primary allegiance to its shareholders and cannot be expected to endorse meaningful reforms to the criminal justice system.”

“I think the best fallout from the forum was how it puts us in a better position to network in the future as we face these important issues,” Father Reuter said. “Too often groups such as us are working in our little silos. It was important for us to come together.”