Treat inmates with compassion, Pope Francis urges prison staff

Pope Francis speaks to personnel from the Regina Coeli prison Feb 7 2019 Credit Daniel Ibanez  CNA Pope Francis speaks with personnel from the “Regina Coeli” prison Feb. 7, 2019. | Daniel Ibáñez / CNA.

Often spaces of suffering, prisons should be places of hope and the possibility of redemption, Pope Francis told prison personnel Thursday, urging them to have compassion on the 'wounds' of their imprisoned brothers and sisters.

Everyone who works in a prison, in whatever capacity, is called "to help those who have unfortunately fallen into the trap of evil, to rise again and to grow in hope," he said Feb. 7, adding that it is possible for prisons, with the right cooperation, to become places of redemption.

"All this is possible through paths of faith, work and professional formation, but above all of spiritual closeness and compassion, following the example of the good Samaritan, who has stooped to look after his wounded brother."

"This attitude of closeness, which finds its root in the love of Christ, can foster in many prisoners the trust, the awareness, and the certainty of being loved," he stated.

Pope Francis spoke during an audience with around 600 personnel from one of Rome's most well-known prisons, the Regina Coeli. Among the group were custodians, administrators, doctors, educators, chaplains, and volunteers, with their families.

During the encounter, the pope said that prisons need to be humanized, disallowing offenses against human dignity, and referred to the fact that many prisoners come from poor social classes and family lives, are marginalized, and without the means to defend their rights. Society looks on inmates as "uncomfortable," "a waste, a burden," he said.

"I have much closeness with prisoners and the people that work in prisons," he said. "[I give] my affection and my prayer, so that you can contribute with your work to making the prison, a place of pain and suffering, also a workshop of humanity and hope."

He also urged the prison workers to be renewed in their strength, perseverance, and personal commitment to the work, which can involve significant stress and psychological strain. Remember, he said, to not only provide order and security to the institution, but "to bind the wounds of men and women whom you encounter daily."

The pope emphasized that "it takes prayer every day for the Lord to give you good sense: common sense in the different situations in which you find yourself."

Speaking frankly, Francis revealed that in Buenos Aires he would often visit people in prison, and that he has continued that tradition in Rome, making a phone call every two weeks on Sundays to a group of prisoners whom he also visits.

"I always had a feeling when I entered the prison: Why them and not me?" he said, adding that it has done him a lot of good to consider this idea.

"I could have been there, but no, the Lord has given me a grace that my sins and my failings have been forgiven and unseen... But that question helps a lot: why them and not me?"

Pope Francis has made a number of notable visits to prisons since the start of his papacy. Most recently he visited a youth prison in Panama during the celebration of World Youth Day, hearing the confession of several young detainees.

Since 2013, the pope has celebrated Holy Thursday Mass at a prison four times. In 2018, he said Mass at the Regina Coeli prison, washing the feet of 12 inmates.

Originally the site of a 17th-century convent, from which it gets its name, the Regina Coeli prison was constructed in 1881 by the Italian government after the country's unification. A women's prison, called the Mantellate, was later built nearby, also on the site of a former convent.

The prison has been visited by popes on three former occasions: by St. John XXIII in 1958, by St. Paul VI in 1964, and by St. John Paul II in 2000.

Like most prisons throughout Italy, the Regina Coeli has had problems with overcrowding and inmate suicides in recent years.

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During the Church's Jubilee Year of Mercy in 2016, Pope Francis held a special Mass for prisoners and prison staff in St. Peter's Basilica. It was attended by about 1,000 prisoners from 12 countries.

"Paying for the wrong we have done is one thing, but another thing entirely is the breath of hope, which cannot be stifled by anyone or anything," he preached.

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