Pope Francis wrapped up his pilgrimage to Bolivia with a visit to its notoriously violent and overcrowded Palmasola prison, where inmates have the run of the place, drugs are cheaper than on the street and money buys survival.
Francis immediately began greeting inmates one by one, clasping their hands and kissing their children. The elderly and infirm had places of honour among the prisoners, who waved yellow and white balloons, the colours of the Holy See.
Francis has frequently spoken out about the plight of prisoners, denouncing the widespread abuse of pre-trial detention and calling life sentences a “hidden death penalty”. He has met prisoners to offer them words of encouragement, and even as Pope continued to regularly call a group of Argentine inmates he ministered to when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires.
Palmasola is the most notorious of Bolivia’s 32 prisons, built to detain 800 people but housing 5,000, more than four in five still awaiting trial. Two years ago, 36 people died in a fierce battle between rival gangs using machetes and homemade flamethrowers.
US businessman Jacob Ostreicher spent 18 months in Palmasola after being arrested for suspected money laundering. Mr Ostreicher, who was released in 2012 when it was revealed he had been extorted by a ring of prosecutors, judges and government lawyers, said he doubted Francis would see the real Palmasola.
“It’s the lifers who control the prison,” he said. “The police officers who guard the outside of the prison push you inside the prison and you’re on your own.”
Francis is urging the prisoners to not despair, while also acknowledging the wretched conditions they face. It is a message of solidarity with the downtrodden that Francis has championed as Pope and in particular on his three-nation South American pilgrimage.
In his most important speech of the trip, Francis apologised for the sins and crimes of the Catholic Church against the continent’s indigenous peoples during the colonial conquest of the Americas.
Francis has gone well beyond his predecessors – and Catholic Church teaching - in saying there is no justification for the death penalty. He has called solitary confinement a “form of torture”, and said solitary and the death penalty should be abolished. In a meeting with penal lawyers last year, he denounced prison systems as “out of control” for depriving people of their dignity.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved