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Pope Francis Calls for Worldwide Prison Reform, Support and Hope for Prisoners

Pope Francis has endeared himself to prisoners around the world and those who advocate on their behalf, visiting some of the world’s most dangerous criminals and offering hope and support to all behind bars, regardless of their religious beliefs. The pontiff even made his compassion for prisoners a centerpiece of his most recent trip to the United States, when he visited a prison in Philadelphia.

“A visit by the pope, it’s an extraordinary thing,” said Lou Giorla, the city’s prison commissioner, who oversaw preparations for the September 27, 2015 visit. “It’ll be a chance for the world to take a look.”

Pope Francis’ visit to the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia, which holds 2,800 prisoners, was one of 17 stops on his first U.S. tour and a potent reminder of the Argentine pontiff’s emphasis on social justice issues since being elected head of the Roman Catholic Church in March 2013.

“It’s really going to bring a level of humanity to the prison world and show that prisoners are people and deserve to be recognized,” said Ann Schwartzman, policy and program director for the Pennsylvania Prison Society, a prisoner advocacy group.

“I’d be glad to see him,” stated prisoner Dino Robinson, 29, who was at the Curran-Fromhold facility awaiting trial and, while there, participated in a furniture shop project to craft a special chair presented to Pope Francis. “It gives us hope that somebody still cares.”

Since becoming pope, Francis has distinguished himself as one of the most liberal pontiffs to ever hold the office, speaking out repeatedly on issues ranging from the death penalty and life imprisonment to solitary confinement. He has met with prisoners all over the world, including counseling juvenile offenders in Brazil and visiting adult prisoners in Bolivia’s most violent prison. And while he has frequently reiterated the Vatican’s long-standing opposition to the death penalty, Pope Francis has attacked sentences of life in prison and the use of solitary confinement with equal vehemence.

“A life sentence is a hidden death penalty,” he declared during a meeting with the International Association of Penal Law on October 26, 2014. “All Christians and men of good will are called today to fight not just for the abolition of the death penalty in all its forms, whether it be legal or illegal, but also the goal of improving prison conditions, out of respect of the human dignity of people deprived of their freedom.”

The pontiff then went further, calling for a worldwide ban on all criminal detention of juveniles, for “special treatment” of elderly prisoners and for an end to preventive detention, which he referred to as a “hidden, illegal punishment.” Expanding on his remarks, Pope Francis denounced what he termed “the deplorable conditions of detention that take place in different parts of the world,” which he said are an “arbitrary and merciless exercise of power over persons who have been deprived of freedom.”

The pope took special aim at so-called supermax prisons – maximum-security facilities where prisoners are often held in solitary confinement for what prison officials have traditionally maintained are security or safety concerns, but which, critics contend, are in reality primarily reserved for the mentally ill and prisoners perceived as troublemakers.

“One form of torture is sometimes applied by imprisonment in maximum-security prisons,” the pontiff said. “With the motive of providing greater security to the community or special treatment for certain categories of prisoners, its main feature is none other than the isolation. As demonstrated by studies carried out by different human rights bodies, the lack of sensory stimuli, the complete lack of communication and the lack of contact with other human beings, causes physical and emotional suffering such as paranoia, anxiety, depression, and weight loss, and significantly increases the chances of suicide.”

These tortures also occur in other prisons, Pope Francis added, “as a means to achieve a particular purpose, such as confession or denunciation, in the name of national security. They are a genuine surplus of pain that is added to the suffering of detention. In this way, torture takes place not only in clandestine detention centers or in modern concentration camps, but also in prisons, juvenile institutions, psychiatric hospitals, police stations, and other institutions of detention and punishment.”

The pope cautioned against using incarceration as an all-inclusive means of solving the world’s troubles.

“In recent decades there has been a growing conviction that through public punishment it is possible to solve different and disparate social problems, as if for different diseases one could prescribe the same medicine,” he said, advising that “caution in the application of punishment should be the governing principle of all criminal justice systems,” and nations should not, for any reason, subvert “respect for the dignity of the human person.”

The pontiff has made clear that he is a friend to everyone behind bars, meeting on March 23, 2015 with 120 male and female prisoners at a facility in Naples, Italy. A church official said several transsexual prisoners and prisoners with AIDS were chosen to have lunch with the pope, to represent those sectors of the local prison population. The prisoners greeted him with cheers and applause.

That visit was included in a day-long trip to the southern Italian city, where the pontiff also visited a violent and drug-infested neighborhood and urged members of organized crime to turn their backs on criminal activity and stop the “tears of the mothers of Naples.”

Pope Francis demonstrated his concern for incarcerated men and women early in his tenure as head of the Roman Catholic Church, addressing a group of approximately 200 members of the National Convention of Italian Prison Chaplains in the Vatican City on October 23, 2013. He told the chaplains they were engaged in vital work, calling it “very challenging and very important.”

During his remarks, the pontiff expressed his belief that no person, regardless of how physically separated from society, is isolated from God.

“God is a prisoner too,” he explained. “He is inside the cell.... He is a prisoner of our egoism, of our systems, of the many injustices.”

Inspiring the chaplains to do more good works, Pope Francis proclaimed, “Recently, you spoke about a ‘justice of reconciliation,’ but also a justice of hope, of open doors and horizons. This is not a utopia. It can be done!”

In March 2013, in one of his first official acts, the pope made headlines during Holy Week by washing the feet of twelve youth held at a juvenile detention center in Rome while commemorating the Last Supper, when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.


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