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Pope visits prisoners, says poor conditions amount to 'double sentence'

Catholic World News - December 19, 2011

During a December 18 visit to the Rebbiba prison in northern Rome, Pope Benedict XVI told inmates that overcrowding in jails and poor conditions often mean a “double sentence” for convicted criminals.

Prisoners should be treated with dignity in all cases, and the penal system should be designed to rehabilitate criminals and help them re-enter society, the Pope said. He said that changes are need to fill the “chasm between what life in jail is really like and how it was intended by the law.”

The Pope reminded the inmates that visiting the imprisoned has always been recognized by the Church as a corporal work of mercy. He emphasized that this should mean not only dropping in on a prisoner but “making space for him in our time, in our home, in our friendships, in our laws, in our cities.” The same attitude should motivate prison officials, he said. He suggested exploring new ways of protecting society and rehabilitating criminals, including alternative sentencing and “non-custodial” terms.

After speaking to the assembled prisoners, the Holy Father took a series of questions from the group. When one inmate complained that HIV-positive prisoners are regularly addressed “aggressively” by the guards, the Pope urged him to maintain a positive attitude. “We have to endure the fact that people speak about us ‘aggressively,’” he said. “They also speak ‘aggressively’ about the Pope, yet nonetheless he perserveres.”

When another prisoner asked why he should confess his sins to a priest rather than directly to God, the Pope said that of course God would forgive any sinner who genuinely repents. “However,” he continued, “sin is not only a 'personal' thing, an individual account between me and God. Sin also has a social dimension. ... And it is this social dimension of sin that needs to be absolved at the level of the human community, the community of the Church.”

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