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As county jail chaplain, Navy retiree doesn't focus on failure

Everything Tom Skemp did in his life got him into jail. Not behind bars, that is, but rather in and out of them.

As the La Crosse, Wis., County Jail chaplain, Skemp offers support and compassion to inmates at will — no matter what their crime. Whether a convict is guilty of shoplifting or was charged with domestic assault, he focuses on a person’s heart instead of his or her failures.

“Having worked side by side with him, I do just see such a huge heart and passion for the folks in jail,” Ann Wales, secretary of the La Crosse Jail Ministry Board, said. “He truly sees the human being behind the person.”

Before becoming a county jail chaplain, Skemp served his country in the U.S. Navy for 20 years. He enlisted at the age of 21 and retired when he was 41.

Most of his military career was spent in radio communications sending messages back and forth between bases. He completed several missions over the years on a Navy submarine and “knows what it’s like to be locked up in a group of people,” Wales said.

When he retired from the service almost 20 years ago, Skemp moved back to La Crosse, where he was born and raised, and enrolled in college to pursue a degree in ministry. He also became involved with the Roman Catholic Diocese of La Crosse, Place of Grace and Blessed Sacrament Parish in La Crosse.

It was at this time Skemp began to volunteer at the La Crosse County Jail, and after spending a significant amount of time working with and praying for the inmates, he was offered the job as chaplain the same month he graduated from Viterbo University. The position as chaplain isn’t a county job, but instead funded by the La Crosse Jail Ministry Board that is run solely by volunteers.

Skemp continues to work at the jail 12 years later and said it’s the best job he’s ever had. The best part, he said, is knowing that he’s doing what God wants him to do.

“This is the only job I didn’t go looking for,” Skemp said. “It’s dangerous to ignore the hand of God in these things.”

Although he doesn’t view himself as a counselor, Skemp spends most of his time listening to the men and women in jail and talking with them about their lives. He offers solace and understanding through reflection and prayer, and empathy as a result of personal experience.

Skemp struggled with alcoholism for many years, but was able to overcome his addiction by way of grace from God. He said recovery is a spiritual thing and many of the inmates live their life without it.

But his job as a jail chaplain isn’t to convert inmates to religion, he said, but to introduce the men and women in jail to the possibilities of hope and faith.

In order for a person to change their life, there needs to be an incentive. Skemp said he doesn’t know anyone who has been able to recover without a spiritual component.

“I plant seeds,” he said. “Whatever their religion or lack of religion is. That’s what I do.”

Another component to Skemp’s job is helping the inmates map a plan for their lives that they can put into effect when they’re released from jail.

Wales, who has worked closely with Skemp as a jail ministry volunteer, said Skemp is always asking the inmates what they’re going to do differently in the future and encouraging them to make healthy changes.

“He’s pretty committed to connecting them to other resources,” she said. “We don’t want what we’re doing to end here.”

Skemp also works with inmates by teaching them in specialized cognitive restructuring and attitude change classes. He coordinates all of the volunteers and works with them hands on, as well.

Wales said the most important thing she’s learned from Skemp is to respect another person. Skemp treats the inmates as regular people and doesn’t hold their wrongdoings against them.

“We all have different things in our lives that we’re all capable of messing up,” she said. “We’re not better or worse than anyone else.”

“He realizes that these people still have value,” Larry Clark, president of the La Crosse Jail Ministry Board, said.

Despite the stress of working with criminals and difficulty he faces day in and day out, Skemp remains positive about his work and continues to be passionate even more so.

Skemp’s wife, Janine, said her husband lives his faith and truly believes in what he does. And she isn’t surprised one bit by his career choice, she said.

“His whole life has led him this way,” she said. “He’s just made for this job.”

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