Pope Francis is poised to make a significant impact on the national conversation about criminal justice reform in the United States when he visits Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility on the edge of Philadelphia this Sunday.
The pontiff will meet more than 100 men and women incarcerated in the severely overcrowded Philadelphia prison system and their families. About 80 percent of inmates at Curran-Fromhold are incarcerated while awaiting trial because they cannot afford to pay bail. The city currently incarcerates roughly 8200 people in facilities built to house 6500, and its criminal justice system exemplifies the problems seen across the United States.
The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation in the world. The increase in the jail and prison population from 300,000 to 2.3 million in the past 40 years has led to unprecedented prison overcrowding and put tremendous strain on state budgets. “Tough on crime” policy has created a growing underclass of formerly incarcerated people who are barred from productively re-entering society by increasingly numerous and onerous restrictions on things like applying for a driver’s license, adopting a child, voting, and receiving federal aid for education or food in many states. But reform efforts are gaining traction, as policymakers from across the political spectrum are moving towards policies that are “smart on crime.”
Pope Francis has been an outspoken advocate for incarcerated people, calling for reforms that recognize the dignity and value of every person. Within days of his election in 2013, he washed and kissed the feet of people incarcerated in a prison in Rome. Last year, he called for an end to solitary confinement, the death penalty, and life imprisonment. And this summer, he visited a notoriously violent prison in Bolivia, where he told 4000 incarcerated men that he was no different from them. “The man standing before you is a man who has experienced forgiveness. A man who was, and is, saved from his many sins.” As a Catholic chaplain at Curran-Fromhold wrote recently, the pope’s visit to the prison serves to remind us “that we are all in need of mercy, including himself.”
The pope has called on his ministers to join him in spending time in prisons. Earlier this year, he told a group of newly chosen cardinals that the Church must reach out to the marginalized, the lost sheep, and “go out in search of those who are distant, on the ‘outskirts’ of life.” He emphasized the importance of proximity, telling his ministers not to be afraid to “smell like the sheep.” None of us, he said, will find the Lord “unless we truly accept the marginalized.”
The pope’s visit to an American prison “is really important because we can’t make the kind of change we want to see in society by simply bifurcating the world into violent offenders and nonviolent offenders,” EJI director Bryan Stevenson said in an interview with Katie Couric this week. “I think it’s critically important that the pope wants to revive that, wants to stand next to the people who’ve been cast aside, cast away, thrown away, and say, ‘No — this person’s life has value and meaning.’”