Pope Francis will visit the United States for the first time next week. In previous visits to the United States, popes have done everything from saying Mass in baseball stadiums to visiting a farm in Iowa simply because a farmer wrote to him and asked. So it’s worth paying attention to how, and with whom, Francis has decided to spend his limited time here.
There are the usual and predictable stops: a mega-Mass in Madison Square Garden, a meeting with politicians in Washington and an inter-religious ceremony at Ground Zero in New York City. But among the smaller-venue sites, nestled between a meeting with bishops and a public outdoor Mass during the Philadelphia leg of his trip, is a two-hour visit to the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility.
Curran-Fromhold, Philadelphia’s largest jail, sits on the northeastern outskirts of Philly, facing the Delaware River. Opened in 1995 and named for two slain wardens at another Philadelphia prison, it houses defendants awaiting trial and convicts serving sentences of two and a half years or less. While Curran-Fromhold is a men’s facility exclusively, Francis will meet with a select number of inmates, men and women, from across the city’s prison system.
This is not the first time a pope has visited a prison, nor is it this pope’s first visit to a prison. He has now twice in his pontificate celebrated the Holy Thursday liturgy (this is a papal first) with incarcerated people.
There is a long tradition in Christianity of ministering to the imprisoned, starting with the words of Jesus, who radically identified himself with those behind bars, saying, “For I was in prison and you visited me” (Mt 25:36). Nonetheless, prisoners rarely receive as much attention from Christian circles as do problems of poverty or life issues, for example.
Former corrections officer and theologian Tobias Winright of St. Louis University believes that this phenomenon stems from a combination of fear and inconvenience: “It’s probably difficult because it takes a lot of effort to go to prison, plus it’s maybe just a fear of the other,” Winright told America. “We think that most of the people in there are violent or dangerous, but in reality, most people imprisoned are not there for violent crimes.
“The pope’s visit will shed light on how these people are warehoused away, out of sight, out of mind,” Winright said.
When Francis walks through the doors of the Curran-Fromhold correctional facility, he’ll be stepping into a criminal justice system that of late has been subject to closer scrutiny in the public eye.
Videos of apparent police brutality against unarmed citizens, often African-Americans, have become commonplace in our social media feeds and on 24-hour news networks. They are sparking new conversations about police procedures. Solitary confinement has also recently been deemed analogous to torture, and a few states have significantly diminished or eliminated its use. Several states are reconsidering the harmful—and costly—affects of the war on drugs. With more than 2.2 million behind bars, the U.S. prison population has swollen to unthinkable levels for a developed nation; although the United States makes up 5 percent of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, with the number of incarcerated increasing by 500 percent over the last 40 years.
The appalling statistics don’t end there, sadly. The inequities of the criminal justice system fall hardest on people of color and those experiencing poverty. A third of all African-American men will see the inside of prison at some point in their lives, and one in six Latino men will; yet only one in 17 white men are incarcerated during their lifetimes. And while the justice system ideally treats people of all classes with the same force, white-collar criminals are viewed as “too big to jail,” as Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general, put it.
Pat Nolan believes the time is ripe for change. Nolan, profiled in The New Yorker earlier this summer, is famous for his work with conservative politicians on criminal justice reform. A former member of the California State Assembly, Nolan spent 29 months in federal custody after pleading guilty to one count of racketeering. Nolan is now the director of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform.
While the political left and right are still polarized on issues like immigration and abortion, there are strong signs of hope for bipartisanship in reforming a broken and cruel criminal justice system.
“What’s so refreshing, in the midst of strong polarization, [is that] criminal justice reform stands out as really the only area where there stands a left-right consensus. The political atmosphere itself is poison, but criminal justice reform transcends it,” Nolan told America. “Pope Francis’ visit will really call attention to the need for reform. It will certainly highlight for many people that the current system is wasteful not only of tax dollars, but most importantly of human potential.”
Nolan is a parishioner at St. John the Apostle in Leesburg, Va., and credits his Catholic faith as motivation for his work: “The Gospel is a very hopeful message of redemption. That redemption applies to everybody, no matter what you’ve done.”
Nolan emphasized that while the government can impose order on the justice system, it is up to churches and communities to take up the building of peace. “The message to the faithful should be to fulfill the call to care for prisoners, to care about the conditions in which they’re held, to care about the system that sentenced them, to care whether they will be branded forever,” he said. “None of us should be judged by the single worst thing we’ve done in our lives.”
There are high expectations that Pope Francis will call attention to these structural injustices pervading the U.S. criminal justice system, but Francis’ gesture at Curran-Fromhold—and his primary motivation—may likely be something more personal. In his final stop in Bolivia earlier this summer, he paid a visit to a group of prisoners. He begged them not to abandon hope, but to look to the crucified Christ in their suffering and desolation: “When Jesus becomes part of our lives, we can no longer remain imprisoned by our past…but [are] capable of shedding tears and finding in them the strength to make a new start. If there are times when you experience sadness, depression, negative feelings, I would ask you to look at Christ crucified. Look at his face. He sees us; in his eyes there is a place for us.”
Besides offering these pastoral words, Francis acknowledged the injustices and frustrations experienced by the prisoners. “I know that there are many things here that make it hard: overcrowding, justice delayed, a lack of training opportunities and rehabilitation policies, violence,” Francis said to them. “All these things point to the need for a speedy and efficient cooperation between institutions in order to come up with solutions.”
Francis has not only ministered directly to the poor, most notably those in proximity to the Vatican, he has also called out a structural economy “that kills,” appealing to the two wings of charity and justice in the tradition of Catholic social teaching. There is a great hope that he will take the same approach, from pastoral to policy, as he did in Bolivia, to the criminal justice system in the United States. But he will likely ground his advocacy in a person: the convicted criminal and victim of the death penalty, Jesus Christ.