SANTIAGO – Pope Francis was told by some female inmates of the torment of either having to raise their children in prison or never being able to see them, during his visit Tuesday to a women’s penitentiary in Santiago, Chile.
Francis has visited numerous prisons during his pontificate and has met with the inmates, but this is the first time Francis has visited a jail entirely for women, and the testimony of one of them, Janeth Zurita, revealed to him the drama of mothers deprived of freedom and what lies ahead for their children.
Upon arriving at the correctional facility on his first day in Chile, several convicts with small children greeted the pope.
A pregnant woman asked that he bless her child, who will be called Lucas and who will be born behind bars, and with all of them he stopped briefly to hear what they wished to tell him.
Later in the prison’s gymnasium, decorated by the inmates with paper flowers and whooping cranes symbolizing hope, and colored streamers with words Francis had said about prisons written on them, the pontiff kissed and hugged all the little children the mothers presented to him.
First to speak at the event was Sister Nelly Leon, the prison’s religious counselor for over 10 years.
Leon said that the close to 400 women here represent the nation’s “40,000 locked-up men and women,” whom she called “the most forgotten people in our country.”
One of them was Janeth Zurita, whom the pope thanked for having thought “about the women deprived of freedom,” because when she did so, “I know she was thinking of our sons and daughters,” he said.
“Dear pope, our children are the ones who suffer the most for our mistakes...With this imprisonment their dreams are cut short, and with that, sometimes we force them to commit the same mistakes that we did,” she said.
To that Pope Francis told the women that their children should be “their hope and stimulus” because being imprisoned “doesn’t mean this is the end” and invited them “to look ahead to their reinsertion in today’s society.”
He asked them “to prepare a future for their children in society” and said “the ability of women to adapt and go forward enables them to fight and move ahead against those...who would kill all hope.”
Francis ended his 40-minute visit to the women’s jail the way he began, by kissing the inmates’ children.