Before celebrating Mass with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims at the 2015 World Meeting of Families, Pope Francis visited prisoners at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia.
Francis sat down in a chair constructed by the prisoners, smiled, gave a thumbs up then shared a message of redemption with the inmates.
"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. All of us are part of that effort, all of us are invited to encourage, help and enable your rehabilitation," Francis said.
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After he spoke, the pope blessed and embraced multiple prisoners.
"It almost brought me to tears. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity," said Chad Lassiter of Red Cross House who also serves on local prison boards. "You can tell he is a man of love, genuineness and kindness. We should display more of that behind the walls of prison. We should see more of this albeit they are incarcerated."
After the pontiff's speech, Lassiter spoke to the pope who stopped right in front of him and touched his hand. With the help of an interpreter, Lassiter asked the pope to pray for the American Red Cross and the pope in turn asked Lassiter to pray for him.
Following the pope’s visit to Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, a network of community organizations called PICO National Network will begin a series of prayer vigils and meetings across the country over the next 40 days to draw attention to mass incarceration and the privatization of portions of the prison system. Among the cities where the events will be held: Los Angeles, San Francisco and Dallas.
Members of the group traveled to Philadelphia for Francis’ visit, among them Tanti Martinez who hoped to reach the pope with the story of her son, Mario Martinez of Oakland, California.
Mario Martinez died from an asthma attack in the Santa Rita Jail in northern California in July, while he was being held on an attempted murder charge. His death came after court orders requiring that he be treated for nasal polyps that were obstructing his breathing, his mother said. He never received surgery for the polyps.
His mother blames inadequate health care provided at the prison by the same company that works in the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, the privately held Corizon Health. Officials deny the prison care was substandard.
Corizon Health Services, a for-profit company which has faced numerous lawsuits, will lose its contract at Rikers Island in New York City at the end of the year.