photo of Larry Snyder, President of Catholic Charities USA

The Power of One: Inmates Helping Inmates

“For I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25:36)

One of the least mentioned of the Corporal Works of Mercy, which are based on the gospel of Matthew, is that of caring for the imprisoned.  Today that also means preparing them for life when they return to society at the end of their terms.  A number of factors work against inmates when they walk out of the prison gate, including lack of clothing, food, and affordable housing.  But they also find it extremely difficult to get jobs – essential to avoid reoffending – because they lack the education and employable skills.  According to the Pew Center on the States more than 40% of offenders return to prison within three years.

The National Reentry Resource Center states that only 65 percent of prisoners have a high school diploma or GED, compared to 82 percent of the general population.  An estimated 19 percent of adult inmates are illiterate and 60 percent are functionally illiterate, according to the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Scholarly studies have shown that prisoners who receive education have both a lower rate of recidivism and a higher rate of post-release employment than those who don’t. But for years prisoner education was a low priority for governments, and funding for in-prison programs scarce.

It was into this space that Mike Schuette stepped in.

In his early 20s, Mike started teaching prison inmates to read. After one, then many more began to learn and understand he was filled with an unquenchable hope, a hope that infused his volunteer work ever since. After decades of volunteer literacy efforts Mike brought his passion for helping inmates read to his volunteer work at Catholic Charities of Southern Illinois (CCSIL).

He first worked to engage more volunteers in tutoring.  But faced with the problem of getting tutors past security in the prisons he developed the “Inmates Helping Inmates” program, in which literate inmates are trained by community colleges to teach illiterate inmates how to read.  Since its inception “Inmates Helping Inmates” has helped thousands greatly improve their reading skills.

Mike helped expand “Inmates Helping Inmates” beyond literacy classes to programs that support inmates in preparing for their re-entry into society.  By acquiring their GED and taking college courses these individuals have a much better chance of getting jobs that pay a livable wage and a lower incidence of recidivism. Mike is now working with CCSIL, the Catholic Conference of Illinois, and state legislators to expand “Inmates Helping Inmates” into all of the state’s prisons.

Mike Schuette is a living demonstration of the power of one person to make a material change in the lives of others and of the transformative power of Hope.