World & Nation

Far from soaring cathedrals, prisoners await Pope Francis’ message of hope

Rameen Perrin, Evan Davis

Inmates Evan Davis, left, and Rameen Perrin affix crosses and a plaque on a chair carved out of walnut for Pope Francis to use during his visit to the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia.

(Michael Perez / Associated Press)

Ed Gilchrist grew up in the rough Philly neighborhood of Kensington, dealing drugs “as soon as I was old enough to count money.” Now serving his second jail stretch, for a marijuana bust, he’s about to experience something that more solid citizens could never hope for — an audience with Pope Francis.

“I never thought in a million years I would come to a county prison and meet the pope,” Gilchrist said with a wry smile Thursday, dressed in jail blues and sitting on a folding chair in the jail’s chapel. “Those two things never line up, you know?”

On Sunday, before celebrating Mass for an expected million or so people, Francis is due to speak to about 80 men and 20 women in a gym inside the razor-wired Curran-Fromhold Correctional Center, part of a sprawling jail complex in a gritty industrial zone in northeast Philadelphia. Even the name carries a grim legacy: The jail is named after a warden and a guard murdered by prisoners in 1973.

In his 2½ years as pope, Francis has made a point of visiting prisoners. In Bolivia, he toured a sprawling and violent jail and talked to inmates about the brutal conditions there. In Rio de Janeiro, he counseled young prisoners. And he twice has chosen to wash the feet of jail inmates, including women, in a pre-Easter ritual.


“This pope is so amazing — he goes to where the sinners are and where Jesus said people need healing,” said the Rev. Paul Morrissey, a priest who has been a chaplain at Curran-Fromhold for 10 years. Morrissey said he hopes the visit will “wake up the American church” to the cause of criminal justice reform.

“That’s what this pope is here to show us, and to maybe open up the American church to people not only in prison but to others too often just cast aside,” Morrissey said.

The pope’s jail visit is coming at a time of growing political momentum behind the cause of pulling back on the tough-on-crime policies that contributed to a surge in the U.S. jail population. The country now has more than 2.3 million people in prison, far more than any other country.

Gilchrist, 43, said his first drug conviction, for selling cocaine, got him 16 years in federal prison after prosecutors labeled him a career offender based on prior assault charges.


“I’m not saying we don’t deserve to be in jail, it’s just too uneven,” he said of drug sentencing laws. “I think it’s crazy that the guys who are just trying to make money get the same sentence as rapists.”

Members of both parties now are backing reforms of mandatory sentencing laws, passed during the early days of the war on drugs.

“Give judges some discretion around nonviolent crimes so that, potentially, we can steer a young person who has made a mistake in a better direction,” President Obama said in Philadelphia in July, calling on Congress to pass legislation by the end of the year.

Francis, too, has spoken out strongly for justice reform. In an address to a legal organization last year, he branded the use of solitary confinement “a form of torture” that leads to paranoia, depression and thoughts of suicide. He also spoke against detaining people without trial, and criticized governments that he says have gone too far with a crackdown on crime.

Speaking to Congress on Thursday, he repeated his support for an end to the death penalty and said “a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”

Activists who work for prisoners say the Roman Catholic hierarchy here has not been outspoken enough on justice issues. They are hoping that the pope, with another strong statement of support for prisoners, might inspire the American church to do more.

“I just listened in awe,” said Vicki Schieber of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, of the pope’s words on capital punishment to Congress. “I just put my head down and sobbed, and thought, this gift from God is greater than anything I could ask for.”

Schieber, of New Market, Md., a lifelong Catholic, began to campaign against the death penalty after a serial rapist in 1998 killed her daughter Shannon, who was studying at the Wharton School here. Her daughter’s killer is now serving life in prison and Schieber has made it her life’s work to help other crime victims and to abolish capital punishment.


She said she has found that not all bishops around the country agree with her passion for justice reform. “Let’s open doors,” she said. “Who can deliver the message better than the pope?”

The jail Francis will visit has been shined and spiffed up with fresh paint, but it has its troubles — starting with overcrowding. About 320 inmates are now sleeping three to a cell designed for two. Violence is not uncommon.

Next door at the stone fortress-like House of Correction, conditions are worse; opened in 1927 using materials from an 1874 jail that was torn down, that facility has no air conditioning and temperatures regularly hit the 90s inside during the summer.

As of Friday, there were 2,891 inmates in Curran-Fromhold. Some, like Gilbert, were serving relatively short sentences. About 68% are still awaiting trial, according to prison spokeswoman Shawn Hawes.

“It causes all kinds of ripple effects — more violence, healthcare problems, you’ve got all these issues that flow from overcrowding,” said David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer.

“On any given day at least 500 people, anyway, are there on fairly low bail,” said Rudovsky, who has been fighting in federal courts since 1971 to force Philadelphia to reduce crowding and improve conditions in its jails. “Sometimes it’s just $500 or $1,000, but they don’t have it, or it takes them a month or two to get it.”

One offender who won’t be meeting Francis is Msgr. William J. Lynn, who was convicted of child endangerment in 2012 for failing to remove abusive priests in the Philadelphia Archdiocese. Lynn was held in Curran-Fromhold for a time this summer, but was moved to a state prison in July.

But the jail does hold people accused of murder, rape or other serious crimes, and some of those alleged violent felons will be in the audience for Francis. Hawes said the jail didn’t screen out serious criminals, but picked the group based on their behavior in jail, and their attendance at services. The preparations for the visit have been underway for months; inmates at a nearby industrial prison carved a large walnut chair for the pope.


One of the prisoners who’ll see Francis is Brandon Hargrose, 31, of West Philadelphia. A college graduate and father of four, Hargrose is awaiting trial on charges of two armed robberies in hotels. He says he will look for a message from the pope to keep his spirits strong. “I try to have faith,” Hargrose said. “Even though I’m not Catholic, he’s obedient to God. He’s such a high-powered guy.”

As for Gilchrist, he is due to be released later this fall and says he plans to get a job and leave the criminal life behind. “I’ve given up too much time,” he said. “I’m going to work like the rest of the world.”

Gilchrist says he’s finishing a memoir but is still fishing for a title. “How about ‘Prison to the Pope?’ That’s as good as any.”

Twitter: @JTanfani

Get our Today's Headlines newsletter