Bringing the Lord

Catholic chaplains offer hope and healing to the imprisoned.

Pope Benedict XVI visited Roman’s Rebibbia prison on December 18 to remind inmates, “God loves you with an infinite love.” Citing Matthew 25, the Pontiff added, “Wherever there is a hungry person, a foreigner, a sick person or a prisoner, there is Christ himself, who is awaiting our visit and our help.”

About 2.3 million people are incarcerated in federal and state prisons and county jails in the United States, and nearly five million more are on probation or parole.  The number of those imprisoned has spiked since the late 1970s, and today, the US has a far higher number of prisoners per capita than any nation in the world. The US has about 5 percent of the world’s population and about 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

While many inmates do not practice any religion, a significant percentage are baptized Catholics, and the ordeal of life in prison prompts them to seek the counsel of a Catholic chaplain or other Catholic volunteer involved in prison ministry. CWR recently spoke to four Catholics dedicated to prison ministry, who shared their insights on how they bring Christ to those living behind bars.

“In their eyes, I see Christ”

Tom Skemp of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, retired from the US Navy in 1994. Ten years ago, he began his prison apostolate at LaCrosse County Jail. Today, he is paid a stipend by a non-profit organization and works at the ministry six days a week.

“The guys I work with are as needy as children, and I have come to love them dearly,” Skemp said. “In their eyes I see Christ looking out at me.”

Skemp devotes about 75 percent of his counseling time to inmates, and the remainder to their families. Recidivism rates are high for inmates in America, and many of those he counsels are “return customers” to jail, whom he gets to know well. The inmates, who are overwhelmingly male, are often dealing with issues related to drug use and alcoholism.

Skemp recalls counseling one such man in his 60s who had been arrested for drunk driving.

“He told me he didn’t drive drunk and that his arrest—for the fifth time for drunk driving—was a fluke,” Skemp said. “He had no intention of changing his behavior because he was unaware he had a problem.”

Inmates and their families are often concerned that with the primary breadwinner in jail, they won’t have money for food and other basic necessities. Some county jail inmates are indigent, and small gifts of cards, paper, and stamps are tremendously appreciated. Others are extremely anxious because, unlike inmates in a penitentiary serving a term, they don’t know when they can get out of jail. Whatever their concerns, Skemp is there to help: “I’m there to serve them in whatever they need. I’m not there to save them, that’s God’s job.”

As talking to a chaplain or prison ministry volunteer may be their only way to get out of their cells, inmates regularly request counseling time. However, the shortage of counseling personnel means prisoners may have a long wait.  “We need more volunteers, particularly at the prison level,” Skemp said. “It’s our greatest need.”

A sign of hope

Paul Rogers, a resident of the Milwaukee suburb of Slinger, Wisconsin, recently retired from 20 years of service as a chaplain at the state’s Dodge Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison.  “A prison chaplain or volunteer is a sign of hope, bringing the Lord to inmates,” he said. “Our Faith gives their lives meaning and purpose.”

Some of the most anxious prisoners are those serving their first terms, he said, because they don’t know what to expect from the system. Inmates suffer from missing significant events in their families’ lives, such as weddings and funerals, and often lose their families altogether after receiving “Dear John” letters. All prisoners are looking for hope, he said, even those sentenced to life terms. Those dying worry about dying alone.

On the upside, prison can give inmates time to think. “Some become quite studious, read the Bible cover to cover, and start to reflect on their lives,” Rogers said.

Violence is a part of prison life, and many worry about being victimized. Rogers himself had concerns about his safety, particularly when counseling prisoners with psychiatric issues. An inmate once threatened his life, but he was never physically assaulted.

According to Rogers, one of the greatest problems with prison life is proper treatment of inmates with medical problems, including drug and alcohol abuse and mental illness

“These are medical problems, and prisons are poorly equipped to handle them,” he said. “As a country, we haven’t figured out what to do with these people. We’re good at locking them up, but not correcting them.”

Today, Rogers serves as president of the American Catholic Correctional Chaplains Association, which seeks to improve conditions in America’s prisons. Like Skemp, he believes there is a shortage of Catholics involved in prison ministry, and that it is often “overlooked” by Catholic dioceses. Additionally, with state budget cuts, there are fewer paid chaplain positions available (Rogers was paid a salary by the state of Wisconsin while working as a chaplain). And, as prisons are often located far from population centers, it can be difficult to get volunteers to make the lengthy drives to correctional institutions.

But, despite the challenges, does Rogers believe that some degree of rehabilitation is possible for every inmate? “Absolutely,” he said. “It’s what we’re about as a Church.”

Too many prisoners, not enough time

Father Christian Reuter, OFM, age 73, says he’s reached a time of his life when many of his contemporaries are “taking cruises and playing golf,” but finds that as a prison chaplain, “I’m working like a Hebrew slave.”

Father Reuter has devoted much of his time as a priest to working in the predominately black South Side of Chicago at both a boys’ high school and a parish, where he was the pastor. Working in the inner city, he knew many families with relatives in jail, and found himself visiting them. A decade ago he made the switch to full-time prison ministry. Father Reuter lives in the high-crime area of East St. Louis, Illinois, and since beginning the ministry, has visited offenders of all levels of incarceration at seven different facilities in southern Illinois. Most inmates he visits are male.

“I do what I can for the men, but I’m kind of at the mercy of the warden,” he said.

Father Reuter has also been involved in prison advocacy work, and his chief concern is access to the prisoners. “Many in prison administration view going to chapel as a privilege, and I think it should be a right,” he explained.

Another common problem is recidivism. Two-thirds of Illinois inmates, he said, once released, return to prison within three years. State budget cuts eliminate programs that teach inmates job skills, and prisons are “schools for crime,” where inmates can teach one another new ways to break the law and get away with it.

Father Reuter is chiefly involved in sacramental ministry, so in the short time he is given at a facility—say, an hour and a half—he celebrates Mass and fits in as many confessions as he can. There is a shortage of priests involved in prison ministry, so often counseling and catechesis is left to lay ministers (generally referred to as “chaplains,” even though they are not clergy). One lay minister with whom he works screens inmates to see which are open to making a confession, and then gives their names to Father so he can make the best use of his time when he visits the facility.

The need for lay ministers is great, Father Reuter said. In fact, he has helped create an online program for volunteers. Once a volunteer has completed a 15-month course, he can visit a correctional facility with a certificate indicating his completion of the ministry training program.

At an annual meeting of the Catholic bishops of Illinois, Father Reuter discussed the state of ministry in Illinois’ prison system. Of the state’s nearly 50,000 inmates, about 15 percent identify themselves as Catholic. However, Father stressed, due to a shortage of prison ministers, “We only reach about 10 percent of them.”

A damaging process

Dale Recinella is a layman who works with death row inmates in Macclenny, Florida. He began working in prison ministry 20 years ago, and has worked with death row inmates since 1998. 

“I’m there to call men to accountability, and to bring them the Good News,” he said.

Recinella began his career as lawyer, but opted to do apostolate work after what he describes as a “near-death experience.” At a formal dinner, he consumed a raw oyster which had bacteria that made him seriously ill. His internal organs shut down, he said, and doctors gave him no hope for survival. The night he was supposed to die, he had a vision of Christ, who called him to use his talents in apostolic ministries.

“Christ was calling me to step up and give a whole lot more to our Faith,” he said.

To his doctors’ surprise, Recinella recovered and was discharged from the hospital two days later. He decided he wasn’t going to return to his law practice, however.  “Christ was calling me out on my choices,” he explained. “I was focused on making money; he wanted me to help the suffering.”

Recinella became involved in a variety of ministries, which ultimately led to his current work on death row. Today, it is his full-time, “non-compensated” job (he doesn’t like to use the word “volunteer,” as he treats the work like a job, rather than coming and going when he pleases).

Recinella has written multiple books on his experiences in prison ministry, including his personal story, Now I Walk on Death Row: a Wall Street Finance Lawyer Stumbles into the Arms of a Loving God. He also has a website in which he shares his experiences,

He compares working on death row to working with other apostolates in which people are facing death, such as from cancer or AIDS. The prisoners wonder if there is an afterlife, and what will become of their loved ones. Recinella takes the opportunity to share his Faith—“I tell them that when you’re part of the Catholic Church, you’re a part of a family.”

The inmates call him “Brother Dale”—he’s in the southeastern end of the Bible belt—and many welcome his ministry. In fact, he has become a godfather to 12 inmates so far, some of whom have been executed.

He notes that in the weeks leading up to an execution, his ministry focuses on the condemned man and his family. After the execution, the ministry not only continues with the family, but with the prison staff who have come to know the man who was executed. “It’s a damaging process,” Recinella said.

Recinella sees about 50 of the 400 inmates on Florida’s death row. He recalled an incident in which an inmate asked him, “Who do you work for?” “No one,” Recinella told him. The man asked him who paid his salary, and Recinella told him he didn’t receive one, explaining, “I’m here because I choose to be.”  The man responded, “Then don’t come back to this cell, you’re crazier than we are.”

Over time, however, the man came to accept and appreciate him. “The guys like him are the reason I’m there,” Recinella said.

He’s never been threatened or assaulted in the prison system, but every time he’s on duty, he makes a point to be aware of his surroundings, who he’s with and where the guards on duty are. “I never forget where I am,” he said.

Recinella went from being a strong supporter of the death penalty to a staunch opponent. Part of his objection is the way it’s applied; those who cannot afford quality legal representation, for example, are disproportionately found on death row. He’s not soft on crime, however. He believes those who intentionally commit pre-mediated murder ought to be locked up for life.

Recinella says he’d like to see more Catholics get involved in prison ministry, including those who can offer support to the victims of violent crimes. He suggested they start looking for opportunities in their parishes.

“We need to keep this issue on the front burner,” he said. “Many people have been touched in some way by the criminal justice system.”

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About Jim Graves 219 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.