PANAMA CITY – They have been behind bars for a number of years, dealing with remorse, overcrowding and loneliness, but there is one activity that has brought some excitement to this group of female inmates in a Panama penitentiary: crafting rosaries for next month’s visit by Pope Francis for World Youth Day (WYD).
At a table full of colorful beads, wooden crosses and cords of string and leather, Yaribel Virrareal told EFE that daily life in the women’s prison on the outskirts of the capital is “too hostile” and that this workshop has helped her “keep my mind busy.”
Virrareal has spent seven years locked up awaiting trial on fraud charges.
“I’m an apostolic Catholic and I never imagined that while being deprived of freedom I could be part of WYD,” she said.
“I believe that the pope will be moved when he learns about what we’re doing and when they tell him that ever since we started making rosaries, we’ve been more united than ever,” said Rubiela Patiño, Virrareal’s friend.
Panama will host WYD from Jan. 22-27, one of the most important events of the Catholic Church, which every three years brings together thousands of young people from all over the world to meet with the pope.
The pontiff’s visit has generated immense interest not only in this country but throughout Central America, since the last pope to travel to the region was John Paul II in 1983.
The intention of the group of 60 prisoners is to manufacture 10,000 rosaries to be distributed to churches in Panama City and made available to the nearly 300,000 pilgrims who are expected to participate in WYD.
Prison warden Vielka Gonzalez told EFE that most of the prisoners are students who are part of a University of Panama reinsertion program, which allows them to eliminate one day of their sentences for every two days of study.
“It is proven that inmates who study in prison are much more likely to reintegrate and not re-offend,” she said.
The workshop is held in a new barracks – painted in spotless white – with a fan and air conditioning, which contrasts with the other parts of the prison, which are dirty and dilapidated.
The inmates usually meet on Saturday mornings, but there are some who also come by on weekdays to spend time making rosaries.
“Many of them were not even believers when we started, but they have placed their hopes and dreams in the rosaries,” said Luisa Angela Tabaes, the prisoners’ tutor.
Pope Francis’ agenda in Panama includes celebrating several large Masses, along with meetings with the Panamanian government and Central American prelates, as well as visits to a youth prison and a social shelter run by the church.
The pontiff is not scheduled to visit the women’s prison, but the inmates are certain that someone will deliver one of their rosaries to him.