SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia – “Reclusion should not mean exclusion,” Pope Francis said on Friday during a visit to Bolivia’s Palmasola prison, stressing the importance of prisoners’ reintegration in society.
“I couldn’t leave Bolivia without coming to see you,” the pope told prisoners in Palmasola, where some 5,000 men, women and children, with their families, are locked up in a kind of “prison city.”
The pope introduced himself to the prisoners as “a man who has been pardoned. A man who has been saved from his many sins.”
He said that “incarceration is part of the process of reintegration in society,” but added that there are many elements working against those being held here.
“I know it well,” he said, things like “overcrowding, how slow justice can be, the lack of occupational therapy and of policies dealing with rehabilitation and violence.
During the pope’s visit, the bishop of Bolivia’s penitentiary congregation, Jesus Juarez, complained to him about the “scandal” that 84 percent of people in jail are either awaiting trial or pursuing appeals, and meanwhile are condemned to an “overcrowding that denies them human dignity.”
Pope Francis, who listened attentively to the words of some inmates, noted the importance of the inmates’ families being present, because “they remind everyone that it is worthwhile to live and fight for a better world.”
He also had a word of encouragement for the prison staff who provide “a fundamental public service” and have an important role in the process of reintegration.
“The task is to raise up and not put down, to dignify and not humiliate, to encourage and not afflict. It is a process that should leave behind a reasoning based on good and bad and move on to a reasoning based on how to help people,” he said.
This attitude, the Argentine pontiff said, “will create better conditions for all. Experiencing such a process dignifies, encourages and lifts up everyone.”
Francis, who as archbishop of Buenos Aires had already begun to visit prisons and has continued to do so as pope, spoke to the inmates about Peter and Paul, “disciples of Jesus who were also prisoners and were also deprived of their freedom.”
He encouraged inmates to pray as those disciples did when they were imprisoned, since it sustained them and kept them from “falling into desperation, into utter darkness.”
Before giving his benediction, Francis asked them to pray in silence, “each in his own way,” and asked them, as he often does, to pray for him, because, he said, “I also make mistakes and must do penance.”
After this visit, the pope will meet with the bishops of Bolivia, after which he goes to Paraguay, the last stop on a tour of Latin America that began in Ecuador.