Pubdate: Sun, 27 Sep 2015
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2015 Chicago Tribune Company
Author: Joseph Tanfani, Tribune Newspapers


Advocates of Reform Hope Francis Does Justice to Their Cause

PHILADELPHIA - Ed Gilchrist grew up in the rough Philly neighborhood 
of Kensington, dealing drugs "as soon as I was old enough to count money."

Now serving his second jail stretch, for a marijuana bust, he's about 
to experience something that more solid citizens could never hope for 
- - an audience with Pope Francis.

"I never thought in a million years I would come to a county prison 
and meet the pope," Gilchrist said Thursday, dressed in jail blues 
and sitting on a folding chair in the jail's chapel. "Those two 
things never line up, you know?"

On Sunday, before celebrating Mass for an expected million or so 
people, Francis is due to speak to about 80 men and 20 women in a gym 
inside the razor-wired Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, part of 
a sprawling jail complex in a gritty industrial zone in northeast 
Philadelphia. Even the name carries a grim legacy: The jail is named 
after a warden and a guard murdered by prisoners in 1973.

In his 2-1/2 years as pope, Francis has made a point of visiting 
prisoners. In Bolivia, he toured a violent jail and talked to inmates 
about the brutal conditions there. In Rio de Janeiro, he counseled 
young prisoners. And he twice has chosen to wash the feet of jail 
inmates in a pre-Easter ritual.

"This pope is so amazing - he goes to where the sinners are and where 
Jesus said people need healing," said the Rev. Paul Morrissey, who 
has been a chaplain at Curran-Fromhold for 10 years. Morrissey said 
he hopes the visit will highlight the cause of criminal justice reform.

"That's what this pope is here to show us and to maybe open up the 
American church to people not only in prison, but to others too often 
just cast aside," Morrissey said.

The pope's jail visit in the U.S. is coming at a time of growing 
political momentum behind the cause of pulling back on the 
tough-on-crime policies that contributed to a surge in the country's 
jail population. The U.S. now has more than 2.3 million people in 
prison, far more than any other country.

Gilchrist, 43, said his first drug conviction, for selling cocaine, 
got him 16 years in federal prison after prosecutors labeled him a 
career offender based on prior assault charges.

"I'm not saying we don't deserve to be in jail, it's just too 
uneven," he said of drug sentencing laws. "I think it's crazy that 
the guys who are just trying to make money get the same sentence as 
rapists." Members of both parties now are backing reforms of 
mandatory sentencing laws, passed during the early days of the war on drugs.

"Give judges some discretion around nonviolent crimes so that, 
potentially, we can steer a young person who has made a mistake in a 
better direction," President Barack Obama said in Philadelphia in 
July, calling on Congress to pass legislation by the end of the year.

Francis, too, has spoken out strongly for justice reform. In an 
address to a legal organization last year, he branded the use of 
solitary confinement as "a form of torture" that leads to paranoia, 
depression and thoughts of suicide. He also spoke against detaining 
people without trial and criticized governments that he said have 
gone too far with a crackdown on crime.

Speaking to Congress on Thursday, he repeated his support for an end 
to the death penalty and said "a just and necessary punishment must 
never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation."

Activists who work for prisoners say the Roman Catholic hierarchy 
here has not been outspoken enough on justice issues. They are hoping 
that the pope, with another strong statement of support for 
prisoners, might inspire the American church to do more.

"I just listened in awe," said the Catholic Mobilizing Network's 
Vicki Schieber of the pope's words on capital punishment to Congress. 
"I just put my head down and sobbed, and thought, this gift from God 
is greater than anything I could ask for."

Schieber, of New Market, Md., a lifelong Catholic, began to campaign 
against the death penalty after a serial rapist in 1998 killed her 
daughter Shannon, who was studying at the Wharton School in 
Philadelphia. Her daughter's killer is now serving life in prison, 
and Schieber has made it her life's work to help other crime victims 
and to abolish capital punishment.

She said she has found that not all bishops around the country agree 
with her passion for justice reform. "Let's open doors," she said. 
"Who can deliver the message better than the pope?"

The jail Francis will visit has been shined and spiffed up with fresh 
paint, but it has its troubles - starting with overcrowding. About 
320 inmates are now sleeping three to a cell designed for two.

As of Friday, there were 2,891 inmates in CurranFromhold. Some, like 
Gilchrist, were serving relatively short sentences. About 68 percent 
are still awaiting trial, according to prison spokeswoman Shawn Hawes.

"It causes all kinds of ripple effects - more violence, health care 
problems, you've got all these issues that flow from overcrowding," 
said David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer.

"On any given day, at least 500 people, anyway, are there on fairly 
low bail," said Rudovsky, who has been fighting in federal courts 
since 1971 to force Philadelphia to improve conditions in its jails. 
"Sometimes it's just $500 or $1,000, but they don't have it or it 
takes them a month or two to get it."

One offender who won't be meeting Francis is Monsignor William Lynn, 
who was convicted of child endangerment in 2012 for failing to remove 
abusive priests in the Philadelphia Archdiocese. Lynn was held in 
Curran-Fromhold for a time this summer but was moved in July.

The jail does hold people accused of murder, rape or other serious 
crimes, and some of those alleged violent felons will be in the 
audience for Francis.

Hawes said the jail picked the group based on their behavior in jail 
and their attendance at services. The preparations for the visit have 
been underway for months; inmates at a nearby industrial prison 
carved a large walnut chair for the pope.

One of the prisoners who'll see Francis is Brandon Hargrose, 31, of 
West Philadelphia. A college graduate and father of four, Hargrose is 
awaiting trial on charges of two armed robberies in hotels. He said 
he will look for a message from the pope to keep his spirits strong. 
"I try to have faith," Hargrose said. "Even though I'm not Catholic, 
he's obedient to God. He's such a high-powered guy."

As for Gilchrist, he is due to be released later this fall and said 
he plans to get a job and leave the criminal life behind. "I've given 
up too much time," he said. "I'm going to work like the rest of the world."
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