The day the pope went to prison

The Southeast Sun Posted: Tuesday, September 29, 2015 4:53 pm | Updated: 7:51 am, Wed Sep 30, 2015 

Michelle Mann Sun Staff Writer

What a moment it was.

McMann

Michelle Mann

On the last day of his first visit to the United States Pope Francis walked through the cinder-block room in a Pennsylvania prison shaking the hand of each of nearly 100 prisoners and their family members.

It was not his first visit to a prison. Days after his election in 2013, he washed and kissed the feet of inmates at a prison in Rome. This summer he visited what is called the most violent prison in Bolivia telling prisoners there that he sees no difference between them and himself.

Pope Francis has been outspoken about the need for reform in criminal justice systems worldwide, but Sunday his message was for the prisoners at the Curren-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia.

He spoke in Spanish, explaining that his English wasn’t very good, but his compassionate tone transcended words.

“This time in your life can only have one purpose: to give you a hand in getting back on the right road, to give you a hand to help you rejoin society,” he told the nearly 100 men and women dressed in drab prison blue. “All of us are part of that effort, all of us are invited to encourage, help and enable your rehabilitation.”

The pope implored Americans to remember prisoners. “I am here as a pastor, but above all as a brother, to share your situation and to make it my own,” he told the inmates at Curren-Fromhold.

“To share your situation and to make it my own.” Strong words. We live in a society that locks “bad guys” away and tends to forget about them. Stricter sentencing laws—designed to deter crime—have created overcrowded prisons instead.

Googling the statistics reveals that of the 10.2 million prisoners in the world, 2.2 million are in the United States. Since 1980, the prison population in the United States has quadrupled.

There are 28 department of correction facilities throughout the state, Alabama Community Corrections Director Jeffery Williams said during a recent visit to Enterprise. In a prison system built for 13,400 inmates there are roughly 25,000 inmates incarcerated in Alabama.

Cutbacks to the state’s mental health programs have resulted in a spike to the numbers of those incarcerated.

Williams shared the podium at the Coffee County Republican Women’s meeting with Dale County Community Corrections Director Cheryl Leatherwood to outline their program that serves as a rehabilitative alternative. While Coffee County doesn’t yet have a community corrections program, they both offered their assistance to Coffee County Court officials as they consider initiating the program as a positive alternative to prison.

What 12th Judicial Circuit does have is a year-old veterans court that was initiated by Circuit Judge Jeff Kelley and District Attorney Tom Anderson. Those eligible for the program—designed for active duty military as well as veterans—are generally non-violent offenders.

Similar programs around the state have a 95-98 percent success rate.

Each program participant is paired with a mentor, also a veteran. At the successful completion of the program, the case can either be dismissed or charges reduced. Their first success story graduated from the program last week.

“Life is a journey along different roads that leave their mark on us,” Pope Francis said. “Jesus came to save us from the lie that says no one can change.”

Pope Francis paused. Then he repeated, “the lie that says no one can change.”

Michelle Mann is a staff writer for The Southeast Sun and Daleville Sun-Courier. The opinions of this writer are her own and not the opinion of the paper. She can be reached at (334) 393-2969 or by email at mmann@southeastsun.com.