Pope to prisoners: 'Confinement is not the same thing as exclusion'

Pope Francis visited Curran Fromhold Correctional Facility on Sept. 27, 2015. ( CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer )

With 11 arrests and four stints in prison by age 48, Raymond Caraballo has not been a man whom many people envy or respect - Caraballo included.

Pope Francis visited Curran Fromhold Correctional Facility on Sept. 27, 2015. ( CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer ) Gallery: Pope to prisoners: 'Confinement is not the same thing as exclusion'

"I feel like I wasted my life," he said.

So when one of the world's most respected men - Pope Francis - visited him and about 70 other inmates at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Northeast Philadelphia on Sunday, the significance was not lost on Caraballo, currently incarcerated on a firearms charge.

"It's ironic; there's probably people out there that would trade places with me in order to get a chance to shake his hand," he said. "I can't believe it takes me to be in prison to actually meet the pope when there's millions around the world that want to do the same thing."

In one of Pope Francis' most anticipated visits on his first trip to the United States, the pastor pope who has made prison reform one of his top priorities did what few in power ever do: He likened himself to criminals.

"All of us need to be cleansed, to be washed," Pope Francis said. "And me in first place."

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After arriving at the prison on State Road near Rhawn Street via helicopter, Pope Francis walked into the prison's gymnasium to a standing ovation.

"I am here as a pastor, but above all as a brother, to share your situation and make it my own," he said.

Attending the pope's speech were male and female inmates from across the Philadelphia Prison System, their families, prison employees, and local officials.

Also present were relatives of Patrick Curran and Robert Fromhold, the former Holmesburg Prison warden and deputy warden, for whom the prison is named - both murdered in the line of duty by Holmesburg inmates in 1973.

Sunday's prisoners were chosen not for their crimes or alleged offenses - which ranged from murder to assault - but rather for their behavior while in custody and their good attendance in prison programs and services.

Several prisoners in the carpentry division of PhilaCor, the prison's job-skills program, even built a 6-foot walnut chair that they gave to Pope Francis.

"The chair is beautiful," the pope said. "Thank you very much for the hard work."

Pope Francis began his speech - which he delivered in Spanish - by criticizing countries that are complacent to people in anguish. While not directly naming the United States - which has 25 percent of the world's inmates but only 5 percent of its population - his message was clear.

"Any society, any family, which cannot share or take seriously the pain of its children and views that pain as something normal or to be expected, is a society condemned to remain a hostage to itself, prey to the very things which cause that pain," he said.

Pope Francis spent a good portion of his 15-minute speech talking about how Jesus washed the feet of his disciples because the dirty roads during that time made their feet "dusty, bruised, or cut." Francis himself has washed the feet of prisoners on more than one occasion since his papacy began, but did not do so Sunday.

"Life means getting our feet dirty from the dust-filled roads of life and history," he said.

But above all, what Jesus wants is for our journeys to continue, the pope said.

"He wants us to keep walking the paths of life, to realize that we have a mission, and that confinement is not the same thing as exclusion," he said, and a prisoner applauded.

Just as he did in his speech to Congress on Thursday, Francis underscored the need for hope and rehabilitation in every punishment.

"It is painful when we see prison systems which are not concerned to care for wounds, to soothe pain, to offer new possibilities," he said.

Francis ended his talk to the prisoners by asking that they look to Jesus.

"He comes to save us from the lie that says no one can change," the pope said.

After his speech, the pope greeted each prisoner and family members individually. Some wept; a few embraced him. Others requested a blessing, which he provided by gently laying his hand atop their heads and praying.

As he walked among the prisoners, aides followed behind and gave each a photo of the pope and a white rosary that was neatly tucked into a burnt-sienna plastic envelope with the papal crest on the front.

At the request of the prisoners, before Pope Francis left, he blessed them and their rosaries.

"May God bless and protect you and may his grace shine upon you," he said. "And may he grant you peace."

Caraballo, the prisoner with 11 arrests incarcerated for a fourth time accused of celebratory gunfire on New Year's Day, said he felt blessed after hearing the pope speak and shaking his hand.

"I think he's a beautiful person," he said. "You know, a lot of people shun prisoners. They think that all prisoners are the worst of society, which is not true. A lot of us are in here for making stupid mistakes.

"The part when he said not to give in, to not believe that we can't change. That's uplifting. I just feel blessed and honored to shake his hand."

But for prisoner Robert Collins, 25, of North Philadelphia, who said he's accused of weapons and drug offenses, the pope's visit brought an even bigger blessing than the one the pontiff bestowed upon those in attendance.

After the pope left the room to meet briefly with a small number of senior prison staffers, Collins got the chance to embrace his tearful wife, Jessica Torres, and their 8-year-old daughter.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience; it was unreal," Collins said of meeting the pope. "But hugging my wife and hugging my daughter was an even bigger blessing."

As Collins was ushered away by prison guards, his little girl screamed after him.

"I love you!"

farrs@phillynews.com

215-854-4225 @FarFarrAway