Philadelphia, Pennsylvania — A woman religious who teaches a course at the Philadelphia prison Pope Francis visited Sept. 27 believes the pope's outreach to prisoners will have an impact on the criminal justice system in America.
"He'll be aware of the injustices that may occur in the prison system," and his presence will raise public awareness about prison systems around the country, said Mercy Sr. Elizabeth Linehan, a professor of philosophy at Jesuit-run St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.
"He's aware of the United States' reputation as 'the great incarcerator,' with our country having a higher percentage of our population in prison than any other country's proportion," she added.
She also said she hopes the pope's visit to the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility will bring to light such injustices as men not convicted of a crime yet serving prison time while they await trial, and some others imprisoned without having bail set.
Linehan has taught a course titled "Inside-Out" at Curran-Fromhold and other prisons in the Philadelphia area for several years. The course brings together student-inmates from jails and university students from the outside world to form one class, taught together weekly inside the prison walls.
She said the course is designed to break down stigmas and barriers by encouraging dialogue and discussion, particularly regarding freedom, fairness and justice.
The pope met with men and women inmates of the Philadelphia prison and some of their family members for about an hour on the last day of his U.S. visit. He presented himself at the prison "as a pastor but above all a brother" to the inmates.
He acknowledged injustices, saying: "It is painful when we see prison systems which are not concerned to care for wounds, to soothe pain, to offer new possibilities. It is painful when we see people who think that only others need to be cleansed, purified, and do not recognize that their weariness, pain and wounds are also the weariness, pain and wounds of society."
The pope also broadened the responsibility for rehabilitation to all sectors of society.
"This time in your life," he told the inmates, "can only have one purpose: to give you a hand in getting back on the right road, to give you a hand to help you rejoin society. All of us are part of that effort, all of us are invited to encourage, help and enable your rehabilitation. A rehabilitation which everyone seeks and desires: inmates and their families, correctional authorities, social and educational programs. A rehabilitation which benefits and elevates the morale of the entire community."
The pope's prison visit gives Linehan hope not only that people will better understand the system of incarceration and the people behind its bars, but all those who are marginalized in society.
"The coherence of his agenda will be a catalyst for change," she said. "It gives people who work with these issues a place to stand and have their voices heard." As an example she cited Mercy Sr. Mary Scullion, who runs the Philadelphia homeless shelter and anti-poverty advocacy organization Project HOME.
"It gives her and her work, for example, higher standing," Sister Elizabeth said.
"That's really what religion is about — care of the poor and love of your neighbor," she added, stressing that the pope's visit will "will definitely spark conversation about these issues" and she hopes it will bring a face and a name to those in our society who are often faceless and nameless.
[Lindsay Hueston writes for CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Philadelphia Archdiocese.]