Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Pope Offers Hope to Prisoners in Bolivia's Notorious Prison

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Pope Offers Hope to Prisoners in Bolivia's Notorious Prison

Article excerpt

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia * Pope Francis urged inmates at Bolivia's notoriously violent Palmasola prison to not despair on Friday as he wrapped up his visit to Bolivia with a message of hope and solidarity for those caught up in Bolivia's corruption-plagued criminal justice system.

Francis greeted the inmates one by one, clasping their hands and kissing their children, and then listened intently as a few prisoners told the stories of how they ended up at Palmasola. They spoke of their poverty and the "judicial terrorism" and abuse of power that lets the wealthy bribe their way to freedom while the poor languish .

In his comments, Francis acknowledged the wretched conditions that the inmates face: crowding, the slow pace of justice, violence and few opportunities for education or rehabilitation. He said Bolivian institutions needed to address those ills.

But he urged the inmates to resist despair and to not let their suffering lead to violence.

"Suffering and deprivation can make us selfish of heart and lead to confrontation, but we also have the capacity to make things an opportunity for genuine fraternity," he said. "Don't be afraid to help one another. The devil is looking for rivalry, division, gangs. Keep working to make progress."

Francis also urged prison officials and guards to rehabilitate prisoners and not humiliate them. Palmasola is the most notorious of Bolivia's 32 prisons, built to detain some 800 people but housing 5,000, more than four in five still awaiting trial. Inmates have the run of the place, drugs are cheaper than on the street and money buys survival.

Two years ago, 36 people died in a fierce battle between rival gangs using machetes and homemade flamethrowers. One of the victims was a 1-year-old.

Francis has frequently spoken out about the plight of prisoners, denouncing the widespread abuse of pre-trial detention and calling life sentences a "hidden death penalty." He has met with prisoners to offer them encouragement, and as pope continued to call a group of Argentine inmates he ministered to when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires.

The message is consistent with the outreach to the downtrodden and marginalized that Francis has championed as pope and in particular on his three-nation South American pilgrimage. In his most important speech of the trip, Francis apologized on Thursday for the sins and crimes of the Catholic Church against the continent's indigenous peoples during the colonial conquest of the Americas.

Francis' final event before he flew to Paraguay brought him up close to the reality of the continent's most ostracized and vulnerable to abuse.

Monsignor Jesus Juarez, who is in charge of pastoral care for Bolivia's prison system, said that 84 percent of inmates hadn't been tried and that prisons were 300 percent beyond capacity.

Three inmates described desperate conditions and asked the pope to intercede, while two young girls played at the pope's feet, one getting up to hug him. …

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