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In jail’s rotunda, John Paul calls for liberation

NCR Staff

Pope John Paul II’s visit to Rome’s Regina Coeli prison July 9 made front-page news here in light of the severe overcrowding of Italy’s prisons and jails.

In a telling indication, more than 100 inmates were temporarily transferred out of Regina Coeli in anticipation of the papal event in order to bring the population under its capacity of 850.

Ten female inmates were bused in from Rome’s Rebbibia prison, on the other hand, to make the point that women, too, are behind bars.

In his homily, the pope called on Catholics to be “engaged for the dignity of all, a dignity that flows from the love of God for every human person.” He told the inmates that God wants them “to walk a way of justice and truth, forgiveness and rehabilitation.”

“The jail from which the Lord comes to liberate you is, first of all, the one in which the spirit is chained. Sin is the prison of the spirit,” the pope said. “God desires the integral liberation of man, a liberation that regards not only the physical and outer conditions of life, but which is in the first place a liberation of the heart.”

“The penal system cannot be reduced to a simple retributive dynamic or some sort of institutional vendetta. The pain inflicted by prison only makes sense if, while asserting the demands of justice and discouraging crime, it also serves the renewal of the inmate, offering the one who erred a chance to reflect and to change his life, and then to be reinserted into society with full rights.

“Perhaps the ones to whom you caused pain will feel more justice has been done watching your interior conversion than simply knowing you have paid a penal debt.”

The pope reiterated his support for an amnesty or clemency. “I know well that every one of you lives watching for the day in which, having atoned for the pain you caused, you will be able to buy back your freedom and return to your own family.

“Aware of that, in the message that I have sent to the entire world for this day of Jubilee, in keeping with my predecessors and, in the spirit of the Holy Year, I have called on your behalf for a sign of clemency, through a reduction of sentence. I have asked for this in the deep conviction that such a choice constitutes a sign of sensitivity toward your condition, as well as a way to encourage repentance and to speed up personal reformation.”

Tension surrounding overcrowding, coupled with impatience for progress on an amnesty, has led to a recent wave of prison violence in Italy.

Inmates, sometimes even joined by guards, have burned mattresses and conducted hunger strikes. In a few cases, the protests have turned violent; at Regina Coeli the week before the pope’s visit, some 25 guards were injured, two seriously, in attempts to restore order.

Several plans are currently before the Italian parliament for an amnesty or reduction in sentence, billed as a humanitarian gesture that would relieve overcrowding. But as is often the case in Italian politics, there is more than meets the eye to the debate.

Beneath the surface is the question of whether such an amnesty would apply to Mafia members or politicans jailed during Italy’s “clean hands” operation in the mid-1990s. Most plans would offer amnesty only to inmates with sentences of three years or less, while the bulk of the “clean hands” convicts drew sentences of at least 10 years. In addition, Italy’s center-right coalition, led by media baron Silvio Berlusconi, has signaled willingness to go along with an amnesty; perhaps not coincidentally, Berlusconi has had several convictions of accounting fraud and bribery and faces trials on other charges of false accounting.

Regina Coeli is a scant 10 minutes away from the Vatican on the banks of the Tiber River. It was built by Pius IX, the last pope to rule central Italy as a secular monarch and hence the last pope to need a jail. It is the most fabled prison in Italy, the setting for “100 movies and 100 novels,” as Rome’s La Reppublica newspaper put it.

The pope celebrated the two-hour liturgy in the rotunda of the prison, wearing vestments sewn by the inmates. He used an altar made of olive wood decorated by a guard. Nine prisoners were selected to serve the Mass – five Italians, two Africans and two South Americans. Another 40 prisoners formed the choir.

In a sad footnote, one of the inmates who served the Mass died in the following week, apparently suffering from ailments related to drug abuse.

During the Mass, the pope was presented with a collection of 557 postcards from inmates from all over the world. The great majority of the artistic postcards came from the United States, according to the Vatican’s Jubilee committee.

Only 73 of the prison’s inmates were able to fit into the rotunda. The rest sat in rows down each of the cellblocks radiating off the main area watching the event on television. Occasionally cameras would pan these areas. At one point, an inmate held up a hand-written sign pleading for an amnesty, quickly snatched away by a guard.

In visiting Regina Coeli, John Paul II continued a tradition begun by John XXIII, who was the first pope to visit on Dec. 26, 1958. As the pope walked down blocks, prisoners knelt in their cells. Later, after a talk in which the pope spoke of his feelings of brotherhood, an inmate fell in front of him and asked: “Holiness, do your words apply to me too, an assassin?”

John XXIII, according to witnesses, lifted the man to his feet and embraced him.

National Catholic Reporter, July 28, 2000