Pope Francis begins his visit to America on Tuesday, and after meeting with heads of state, laypeople and clergy, one of his final stops this weekend will be at Philadelphia's Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility.
The visit will only last a few hours but as President Obama did this past summer, he'll bring attention to the almost uniquely American problem of mass incarceration. And as he lays hands on the incarcerated in an overcrowded, dangerous prison that holds about 3,000 of the 2.2 million people in this country behind bars, those who watch prisons will be watching him.
"Activists, civil rights lawyers, and many of the men incarcerated at Curran-Fromhold hope your visit will call attention to the jail’s woes, which include published videos of beatings by officers, as well as much-litigated conditions of overcrowding," writes The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news website that focuses on the criminal justice system. "Jail commissioner Lou Giorla hopes your visit will help promote the jail’s goals of “community ties and family reunification,” parts of his attempts to make sure men and women who leave jail do not return.
When Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison when he visited Oklahoma's El Reno Correctional Facility, he showed empathy with the inmates, speaking to them about a system he feels is broken and in desperate need of reform. He even shared commonalities with many of them, offering that "I didn't know my dad, and too many of our young people don't know their dads," he said to them, in footage for an upcoming HBO documentary.
It was a powerful move, even for a president who is not facing re-election.
So when Francis does the same thing, how will it be received? Writers at The Marshall Project hope it makes at least as big an impact as Obama's visit.
"It is hard to imagine a bigger divide in rhetoric between [former Philadelphia Mayor Frank] Rizzo, the onetime mayor who talked about criminals as 'vermin,' and [Philadelphia prisons commissioner Lou] Giorla, who worries that “people want the criminal justice system to fix all of our problems” and believes “we’ve got to take a look at what’s criminal in this country; a kid puts his hand in the shape of a gun and they say ‘lock him up,’” The Marshall Project continued. “You happen to be catching our country at a particularly rich moment of reassessment, and many — both jailers and jailed — hope you will contribute to that moment."
Madison J. Gray is Managing Editor of Ebony.com. Follow him on Twitter @madisonjgray.