Pubdate: Sun, 27 Sep 2015
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2015 Los Angeles Times
Author: Joseph Tanfani


Inmates, Advocates Hope Francis Will Encourage Changes in U.S. 
Criminal Justice.

PHILADELPHIA - Ed Gilchrist grew up in the rough Philly neighborhood 
of Kensington, dealing drugs as soon as he "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 with a wry smile Thursday, dressed 
in jail blues and sitting on a folding chair in the prison'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 Center, part of a 
sprawling prison complex in a gritty industrial zone in northeast 
Philadelphia. Even the name carries a grim legacy: It's named after a 
warden and a guard killed by prisoners in 1973.

In his 21 2 years as pope, Francis has made a point of visiting 
prisoners. In Bolivia, he toured a sprawling and 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 inmates, including women, 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, a 
priest who has been a chaplain at Curran-Fromhold for 10 years. He 
says he hopes the visit will "wake up the American church" to 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 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 U.S. jail population. The 
country now has more than 2.3 million people in prison, far more than 
any other country.

Gilchrist, 43, says his first drug conviction, for selling cocaine, 
got him 16 years in federal prison after prosecutors labeled him a 
career offender based on previous 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 back 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 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 "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 says have 
gone too far in cracking down 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," Vicki Schieber of the Catholic Mobilizing 
Network said 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 here. 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 says 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 prison Francis will visit has been shined and spiffed up with 
fresh paint, but it has its troubles - starting with overcrowding. 
About 320 inmates are sleeping three to a cell designed for two. 
Violence is not uncommon.

Next door at the stone fortress-like House of Correction, conditions 
are worse: Opened in 1927 using materials from an 1874 jail that was 
torn down, it has no air conditioning, and inside temperatures 
regularly hit the 90s during the summer.

As of Friday, there were 2,891 inmates in Curran-Fromhold. Some, like 
Gilbert, were serving relatively short sentences. About 68% are still 
awaiting trial, according to prison spokeswoman Shawn Hawes.

"It causes all kinds of ripple effects - more violence, healthcare 
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 reduce crowding and 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 Msgr. William J. Lynn, 
who was convicted of child endangerment in 2012 for failing to remove 
abusive priests in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Lynn was held in 
Curran-Fromhold for a time this summer, but was moved to a state 
prison in July.

But the jail does hold people accused of murder, rape and other 
serious crimes, and some of those alleged violent felons will be in 
the audience for Francis. Hawes says 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 says 
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 highpowered guy."

As for Gilchrist, he is due to be released this fall and says 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."

Gilchrist says he's finishing a memoir but is still fishing for a 
title. "How about 'Prison to the Pope?'" he says. "That's as good as any."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom