Pope Francis greets a refugee during mass at the Church of
the Gesu (Italy, 2013). Photo courtesy the Jesuit Refugee Service.

Among Pope Francis plans for his stay in Philadelphia is a visit to Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility.

Local activists are hoping that the visit will draw attention to the atrocious conditions in the jail, but that is not all. As Maurice Chammah writes in the Marshall Project:

Ironically, Curran-Fromhold was opened in 1995 in part to deal with overcrowding. But by 2001 the Philadelphia Inquirer was reporting the system could no longer “keep pace with arrests,” a problem, the newspaper noted, that had hit jails in Los Angeles, Indianapolis, and other large cities as police focused on making frequent arrests for low-level crimes. Many of the men and women arrested for these lesser crimes could not make bail, so they stayed. From 1999 to 2008, according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, “the percentage of bed-days in the Philadelphia jails consumed by pretrial inmates on an annual basis rose from 44 percent of the total to 57 percent.” In 2009, the Philadelphia Prison System, designed to hold roughly 8,000 people, was holding more than 9,000. 

The numbers don’t capture how these jails feel, though. Lawsuits against the conditions at Curran-Fromhold have described how three prisoners are sometimes housed in cells designed for two. The odd man out sleeps in a plastic cot on the floor called a “blue boat.” One inmate, Everett Keith Thomas, scribbled on a handwritten federal complaint in October 2014, “I awakened to find mouse feces on my face and blanket in the blue boat.” Jail officials say they are careful never to keep an inmate in a triple-cell for more than 45 days.

Chammah hopes that the Pope will join the growing movement for prison reform:

You are probably aware that over the last few years there has been a major shift in the politics of criminal justice throughout the U.S. Philadelphia is no different, and city officials have begun to look at criminal justice reform for its own sake — not just to satisfy judges and civil rights lawyers.

Last year, the city received $750,000 from the U.S. Justice Dept. to improve services for former jail inmates as they reenter the community. In May, the city was one of twenty to receive a grant of $150,000 from the MacArthur Foundation as a part of their Safety and Justice Challenge, which the city is using to analyze its criminal justice data and try to find ways to reduce the jail population. (If MacArthur is impressed, the city may be selected to receive up to $4 million for this project). In July, the city’s likely next mayor, Jim Kenney, indicated that he might push for Philadelphia to eliminate cash bail for some pretrial defendants, allowing them to be supervised in the community rather than locked up, further easing the burden on the jail system.

He ends his letter to the Pope thus:

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.

Of course, I agree with Chammah; the Pope’s visit is happening as the humonetarian move is in full swing, and could only contribute to this welcome trend. But I think it will do something even more important: it will highlight what has been, for many years, perceived as a domestic problem to the level of a human rights crime deserving of international attention.

One of the things that always struck me as odd is the extent to which the international community is preoccupied with international, or foreign, conditions, to the exclusion of the domestic ones. I was raised, of course, on the distinctions the Israeli legal system makes between domestic, “ordinary” criminal behavior and “security crime”, which is often a false dichotomy. But I see the same meme in literature and film that highlight the misery of Westerners doing time in exotic, Eastern facilities, such as Brad Davis in Turkey in Midnight Express or Bridget Jones in Thailand in The Edge of Reason. There’s a certain degree of perverted Orientalism in these accounts. No doubt, the experience of being incarcerated far away from home in a foreign culture is pretty shocking. But the focus on these unusual situations has the effect of trivializing the “usual” horrors of being incarcerated at home.

Shane Bauer, who was incarcerated in Iran, visited California prisons upon his release and return home. Much to his horror, which he documents in this Mother Jones article, he found domestic incarceration conditions to be worse. The horrific medical neglect and unnecessary, iatrogenic death toll exposed in Brown v. Plata would yield international outrage if it was reported from a developing country. The fact that we incarcerate juveniles in adult institutions and put them in solitary confinement would raise a serious alarm and much tongue-clucking if it were reported to happen in a so-called primitive country.

Some of these conditions have received international attention. Our use of long-term solitary confinement has been reviewed and severely criticized by the U.N. expert on torture. Because torture is no less torture if it happens to domestic citizens on domestic soil. It is hoped that the Pope’s visit will lead to a reframing of U.S. prison conditions as a serious human rights crime deserving of international attention and corrective measures.

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