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.”

Meanwhile, on the campus of St. Louis University, about 75 persons were attending the Incarceration Forum. The forum’s speakers sought to highlight solutions for mass incarceration that are consistent with the social justice teachings of the Church. Panelists and break-out groups discussed the school to prison pipeline, race, poverty and sentencing, health and mental health and employment after release.

The Incarceration Forum summary listed the next steps that will be the focus in 2018.

  • Race, Poverty and Sentencing to convene a gathering of stakeholders currently working on advocacy related to race/poverty/sentencing to develop needs assessment for the region.
  • Employment Training to convene a gathering of stakeholders to develop a public relations strategy to change the narrative focusing on employment/training of individuals impacted by incarceration.
  • School to Prison Pipeline to create partnerships between education & reentry. Develop a working group to identify potential partnerships between education and reentry partners.
  • Health/Mental Health to convene gatherings of stakeholders to develop recommendations to focus on procedural changes for individuals leaving DOC facilities to reentering the community (pre-release mental health exams and services linkages within the community).

Organizers also drew attention to crucial issues that must be addressed for effective reforms to happen, especially the high costs of incarceration to all stakeholders. Illinois spends $1.4 billion a year for its department of corrections.