WASHINGTON - When Pope Francis makes a stop at the
Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia in
September as part of his U.S. visit, it may seem like part of
the pope's usual routine.
His visits to prisons as part of his pastoral journeys to
other countries has become part and parcel of the pope's
style, just as it had been for St. John Paul II to visit
pockets of the Polish diaspora during his well-traveled
But visiting fellow countrymen once removed is one thing.
Visiting criminals and crime suspects is quite another.
Although visiting the prisoner was mentioned in one of Jesus'
parables, only a very hardy few - ordained and laity alike -
What they see week in and week out - and what Pope Francis
may see during his jail visit - is, in many respects, a
beaten-down population hopeful for a better future should
they be released, but often without the tools to secure that
"It's all the petty drugs and too many DUIs and too much
stupid stuff," said Kathleen Barrere, who is part of the jail
chaplaincy at Marsh Creek, a minimum-security facility in
Contra Costa County, California, in the Diocese of Oakland,
for about 100 prisoners who have been sentenced to terms of a
year or less for misdemeanor offenses.
Barrere disabuses anyone of the notion that Catholics are
somehow more immune than the rest of the population from
committing criminal offenses. "There are many, many Catholic
people who find themselves in jail," she said.
Mass is the only Sunday religious activity. Sometimes it
draws a couple, sometimes up to 20.
The prisoners' situation "just grabs you," Barrere, 64, told
Catholic News Service. "You want to save 'em. ... It's
somebody's baby boy. I have three children of my own. Stuff
happens and you want to reach out to that person ... who made
a mistake, and maybe you can touch their lives."
She added that she has never felt unsafe in all the time she
has been going to Marsh Creek. "You feel the vibes one way or
the other. I never had any of the kind of the creepy feeling
that 'oh, I don't want to hug this one, he'll get the wrong
idea,'" she told CNS.
Not that hugging is common. After the 9/11 terror attacks,
jail officials nixed the holding of hands at the Our Father
during Mass, as well as clasping hands at the sign of peace.
But inmates, once released, are welcome at Barrere's parish,
St. Bonaventure in Concord, California. A few have shown up
after having served their sentences. But when they're behind
bars, she added, she tells them, "We consider you
parishioners while you're here."
Father Michael Bryant has been involved in jail ministry in
the District of Columbia for the past 35 years, but on a
part-time basis since he turned 65 10 years ago.
With a background in psychology and counseling, Father Bryant
has ministered to inmates in a 1,365-bed men's jail. At one
time, the population bulged to 2,200 because of overcrowding
but it has dwindled this year to its current 1,000, as
police, mindful of the district's new marijuana legalization
law, are not arresting people for possession as once they
The typical jail resident, awaiting trial on whatever charges
have been brought against them, are "on the lowest end of the
socioeconomic sector, and they're people of color," Father
Bryant told CNS. "There's not too many upper-middle-class
here," he remarked, although he recalls seeing both
soon-to-be-paroled spy Jonathan Pollard and his wife were
both were in the jail awaiting trial.
"Blacks and a growing number of Hispanics are in these
institutions," he added. "I think it's this way across the
United States. Blacks make up only 12 percent of the
population; they make up 48 percent of all the incarcerated."
The jail sees its share of repeat long-term visitors. "I see
them come back over and over again into this facility. They
know me and I know them. They can call me by name. That's
just a reality of life," he noted. "There's not much of a
support system when people come back into the community"
following their release. Drug and alcohol abuse, he added,
don't help matters.
Father Bryant established a "Welcome Home" program for
communities receiving released prisoners. Now run by Catholic
Charities in the Archdiocese of Washington, it seeks "mature
people of faith who are willing to 'walk with' those
returning home from prison. Training prepares compassionate
mentors to support returning citizens by offering moral
support and practical guidance," said a brochure describing
There are numerous job-training, educational and life-skills
programs available in the Washington area. "We can help
them," Father Bryant said. The programs are free, he added,
"but they wouldn't have a clue as to how to get them."
Father J. Francis Frazer, a Pittsburgh diocesan priest and
chaplain at Pennsylvania state prison in Greene County, notes
the prison has the state's highest population of death-row
inmates, about 150. Of the prisoners, about 40 have asked to
go to the weekly Mass. Most go; about a dozen cannot, because
they are confined to their cells. Father Frazer has to go to
them to give them Communion, and won a battle with prison
officials to open the cell doors so he can give the Eucharist
directly to the men, rather than having to put his hand and
the host between the bars of the cell door.
"It was a matter of dignity for them," Father Frazer told
CNS. "It should be more of a personal encounter."
Even outside Mass, Father Frazer will visit with prisoners.
Some are happy to get a Bible or some religious literature,"
"Some of them will just have a religious question. One of
them, I think I've come a long way with, when I first went to
see him, he thought there was no way God could forgive him
for what he did. He's on death row. He murdered people." The
man had been jailed for killing someone - although the
conviction was for an offense less than first-degree murder -
was paroled, and then killed another person. "He felt God
could not forgive him for that. We had a lot of talks with
him on that."
Now, Father Frazer added, "he receives Communion regularly."
The priest speculated about what Pope Francis might, and
might not, see, in his Philadelphia jail visit.
"He probably will not see the everyday running of a prison.
He'll probably see so many people that they pick (in
advance). I don't' think Francis will probably get into a
place like we call 'the hole.' But he might! He might push
that issue," Father Frazer said, chuckling, "but I probably
don't think he will. He'll probably do a walk-through, and I
don't think he'll get to see too many directly that they
could actually sit down with him."