The National Catholic Review

Continuing a remarkable tradition during visits outside the Holy See, Pope Francis made time during his crowded schedule in Ciudad Juarez this morning to visit with prisoners at El Cereso prison. The visit was all the more noteworthy because it comes on the heels of a prison rampage last week in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon. That violence ended in the deaths of 52 prisoners as rival gangs tore into each other for hours within the Topo Chico prison before order was restored.

He began his visit this morning inviting the audience of 700 inmates and family members to join him in prayer. He greeted a line of prisoners personally with a blessing and a kiss.

He told them that no one was truly beyond God’s mercy. “United to you and with you today,” Pope Francis said, “I want to reiterate once more the confidence that Jesus urges us to have: the mercy that embraces everyone and is found in every corner of the world. There is no place beyond the reach of his mercy, no space or person it cannot touch.

“Divine Mercy,” he said, “reminds us that prisons are an indication of the kind of society we are.” Returning to a familiar theme, he added, “In many cases they are a sign of the silence and omissions which have led to a throwaway culture, a symptom of a culture that has stopped supporting life, of a society that has abandoned its children.”

The pope told the inmates that part of celebrating the Jubilee of Mercy with them “is recalling the pressing journey that we must undertake in order to break the cycle of violence and crime.”

“We have already lost many decades thinking and believing that everything will be resolved by isolating, separating, incarcerating, and ridding ourselves of problems, believing that these policies really solve problems. We have forgotten to focus on what must truly be our concern: people’s lives; their lives, those of their families, and those who have suffered because of this cycle of violence.”

The pope called for prison facilities to truly respond to the obligation of rehabilitation rather than serve as holding facilities to merely prevent inmates from committing further crimes. That work of rehabilitation, he suggested, begins outside of prisons “in the streets of the city.”

“Reintegration or rehabilitation begins by creating a system which we could call social health, that is, a society which seeks not to cause sickness, polluting relationships in neighborhoods, schools, town squares, the streets, homes and in the whole of the social spectrum. A system of social health that endeavors to promote a culture which acts and seeks to prevent those situations and pathways that end in damaging and impairing the social fabric.”

Once considered the most violent prison in Mexico, a 2009 riot claimed 20 lives, El Cereso has been transformed in recent years, though it still houses some of the state’s most violent prisoners, among them many members of violent narco-trafficking gangs. Now dubbed a “Centro de Readaptación,” the “rehabilitation” facility, with 3,000 inmates, is part of an effort to reorganize the state’s prison system. It has achieved accreditation under international prison standards and is now considered a showpiece facility in the state of Chihuahua.

Speaking more personally and directly to the incarcerated men and women before him, the pope urged them to look forward, not backward to the things they had done, to use their remorse “to open the door to the future, to tomorrow,” and to become prophets within their own communities, to “speak with your loved ones, tell them of your experiences, help them to put an end to this cycle of violence and exclusion.”

“Work so that this society which uses people and discards them will not go on claiming victims,” Pope Francis said. “You have known the power of sorrow and sin and have not forgotten that within your reach is the power of the resurrection, the power of divine mercy which makes all things new.”

In Mexico prisons are known for overcrowded and difficult conditions with few true rehabilitative options for inmates at the same time connected inmates are able to live relative lives of luxury behind prison walls. The Topo Chico prison in Monterrey was 35 percent over capacity at the time of the riot last week, with more than 3,800 inmates. A sweep by federal officials following the violence revealed that some inmates lived in oversized cells with sauna, air-conditioners, bars and flat-screen television. The vast majority meanwhile were held in cells without water, ventilation or light.

Several prison administrators have already been arrested and Mexico corrections officials have vowed to take back the facility from the control of inmate drug-cartel members who had been essentially running the facility. El Cereso was not much differently run just a few years ago.

The pope has previously visited with prisoners in the United States—with inmates at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia—Italy and Bolivia. He is likely to continue such visits during this Jubilee Year of Mercy.