Jennifer Millar sat thinking about the strangeness of it all.
After a hard-knocks life that included abuse and 22 years of cocaine addiction, she landed in jail on a drug charge and, when a paperwork snafu delayed her release, found herself a few feet from Pope Francis.
Millar, 37, of Philadelphia squeezed the pope’s hand and handed him a letter asking him to pray for her children. “It’s the perfect ending to all of it,” she said, saying she expects to be released in seven days. “That was just awesome – meeting God’s right hand man.”
On the final day of his visit to the U.S., Pope Francis came to a gym in the Curran Fromhold Correctional Facility to speak to prisoners of pain, hope and the possibility of redemption.
“I am here as a pastor, but above all as a brother, to share your situation and to make it my own,” he said.
The pope has made it a point to regularly visit prisoners on his trips, has called for an end to capital punishment and has spoken against solitary confinement, which he says is a form of torture. On Sunday, he said prison systems need to restore a goal of rehabilitating prisoners and helping them rejoin society.
“It is painful when we see prison systems which are not concerned to care for wounds, to soothe pain, to offer new possibilities,” he said.
The pope sat on a walnut chair that was made by city prisoners – he praised it as “very beautiful,” and thanked inmates for their hard work. The inmates sat in blue plastic chairs, in their blue uniforms and slip-on sneakers, under the eye of a crowd of corrections officers. There were lots of neck tattoos. Two inmates were in wheelchairs, including Edwin Lopez, who said he was shot and paralyzed on one side; he is awaiting trial on drug charges. His son, Edwin Jr., in jail on an aggravated assault charge, was also in the audience.
Dolores Porrett, 55, came wearing 10 rosaries around her neck, all given to her by other inmates in the unit; she got the pope to bless them. “My sister asked, do you feel holier now?” said Porrett, charged with dealing seven kilos of cocaine. The bust, she said, had a silver lining: “I would never have gotten to be here. It’s the best thing in the world that I get to meet him.”
After the speech, the pope moved slowly along the rows, greeting each of the inmates with a smile and a warm handshake. Some leaned in and asked for his prayers. At the end, a few stood up and hugged him, and requested his blessing; with a smile, he put his hand on their foreheads.
Luis Colon, 45, awaiting trial on a weapons charge, said one statement of Francis hit home: Jesus “comes to save us from the lie that no one can change.”
“That’s very truthful,” he said. “Anybody can change. It takes some people longer than others.”
Follow @JTanfani on Twitter