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Pope Francis on Prison: 'I, Too, Could Be Here'

Pope Francis has made his pastoral care for the imprisoned a very personal cause. When he visits prisons, he embraces the inmates physically and emotionally.
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This time tomorrow Pope Francis will arrive in Washington, D.C. and make his first papal visit to the United States. The pope's five-day, three-city visit to the United States is jam-packed with prayer services, masses, meetings with government officials -- and a visit to the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia.

This may seem like an odd addition to an already heavy schedule, especially when there are countless pressing issues for the pope to address while here -- from global warming and economic inequality to international diplomacy and the refugee crisis. But for this pope, a scheduled visit with inmates and their family members is neither new nor surprising. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis was known for his outreach to AIDS patients, prison inmates and residents of the city's slums. During his first Holy Week as pope, he held a private mass with inmates at a juvenile detention center in Rome; in 2014 he did the same, washing the feet of inmates on Holy Thursday. This past summer in Bolivia, Pope Francis visited an overcrowded, violent prison rife with corruption and called for rehabilitation and re-entry services for its inmates.

Pope Francis has also condemned American criminal justice practices. He has said there is no justification for the death penalty; he has referred to solitary confinement as "torture;" he has deemed life without parole a "death penalty in disguise;" and he has called for "mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation" for juveniles sentenced to life without parole in America.

Even more profound, though, Pope Francis has made his pastoral care for the imprisoned a very personal cause. When he visits prisons, he embraces the inmates physically and emotionally. In Bolivia, he told the inmates with whom he visited: "I could not leave Bolivia without seeing you," and he spoke of his own human frailty, saying: "The man standing before you is a man who has experienced forgiveness. A man who was and is saved from his many sins." Reflecting on his prison visits, Pope Francis has shared his thought that "I, too, could be here."

Those words -- "I, too, could be here" -- are a stunning display of humility and generosity, but they are also a call to action in the United States. By age 23, nearly one third of all Americans have been arrested for a crime. And yet, while exposure to the criminal justice system may be relatively common, only subsections of the American population experience the system's chokehold.

Across the country, not just in Ferguson, there is tremendous racial disparity in rates of arrest; in some cities, black Americans are arrested at ten times the rate of non-black citizens. At the same time, eighty percent of those who are prosecuted for a crime in America are poor. While the Constitution grants indigent defendants the right to an attorney, public defenders carry crushing workloads and often simply do not have the time or resources to provide zealous representation to their clients. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, almost sixty percent of the nation's male inmates are black and Hispanic, despite the fact that the black and Hispanic communities make up less than one third of the U.S. population. Most incarcerated people have some form of mental illness. Indeed, as Pope Francis suggests, so many of us could be incarcerated if our life circumstances were different: if our skin color were different; if our economic opportunities were different; if we were mentally ill; or if we had no one to advocate for us.

When the pope visits the United States next week, he will bring attention to our criminal justice practices -- one of our nation's greatest shames. With more than two million adults and children behind bars, we lead the world in our rate of incarceration. The United States is an international outlier in its use of solitary confinement; we are the only nation that actively sentences children to life without parole; and we continue to execute people despite evidence that our criminal justice system is fundamentally flawed and unfair. When Pope Francis visits one of our nation's prisons, he will bear witness to these practices. Hopefully, his prison visit will not only shed light on them, but also spur meaningful reform in the months and years to come.