Pope Francis embraces Rafael Ramos, an pre-trial inmate at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility. Photo: Max Marin/AL DIA News

A prayer for prison reform

"It is painful when we see prison systems which are not concerned to care for wounds."


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There was no indictment on Sunday morning when Pope Francis addressed nearly 100 inmates at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Northeast Philadelphia.

The Holy Father did not condemn the alleged crimes of those before him, nor did he, as many thought he might, damn the epidemic of mass incarceration in the U.S. Rather, the Pope offered prayers for both the sinner and the system.

“It is painful when we see prison systems which are not concerned to care for wounds, to soothe pain, to offer new possibilities,” the Pope said. “It is painful when we see people who think that only others need to be cleansed, purified, and do not recognize that their weariness, pain and wounds are also the weariness, pain and wounds of society.”

Behold the chilly, blue-curtained room before him.

According to an unpublished report obtained by The Philadelphia Inquirer, the 95 men and women Pope Francis met with Sunday face a range of charges for violent crimes: nine with murder, 15 with rape, five with robbery, and 12 with assault.

Most of these inmates were openly emotional after hearing the Pope’s pensive words. Others seemed amused, others more disinterested.

But each of them has a story.

Rafael Ramos didn’t know that the pope was going to shake their hands. When the Holy Father came down his rows of his fellow inmates, Ramos was among the first inmates to share a hug with the holy father. Hushed sentences passed between the two.

What did the Pope whisper into his ear?

“He said he’ll pray for me,” Ramos later told AL DÍA.

Originally from Puerto Rico, Ramos came to Philadelphia at age four. He grew up at 5th and York Streets, where, in his teenage years, he entered a life of crime from which he would spent his life trying to escape. Like so many others in the room, his story is told as one story, but as a string of stories, a mess of circumstances and decisions that blur together in his memory.

“I lost my daughter in 2008, had a hip operation, turned myself in, turned my life around, I did that. Then I got caught up again with some other stuff,” he said. “I’m hoping this time around God will get me through this time.”

In the front row of female inmates sat Amanda Cortes. She had a similar soft-spoken exchange with Pope Francis, but unlike Ramos, she said that Pope Francis asked her to pray for him. “I have to,” she said. “I’m going to pray for him now.”

When the prison visit was first announced in June, some critics asked why the Pope would spend his time in U.S. among alleged criminals. Most of the inmates at Curran-Fromhold are awaiting trial and have not been convicted.

The speech was carefully worded, almost poetic at some moments. But its central point was clear: these problems are not just problems of the individual men and women in this room, but of society as a whole.

“It is a difficult time, one full of struggles. I know it is a painful time not only for you, but also for your families and for all of society,” the Pope said. “Any society, any family, which cannot share or take seriously the pain of its children, and views that pain as something normal or to be expected, is a society 'condemned' to remain a hostage to itself, prey to the very things which cause that pain."

In the end, Francis said, reform is needed on both sides.

"All of us have something we need to be cleansed of, or purified from. May the knowledge of that fact inspire us to live in solidarity, to support one another and seek the best for others."


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