There’s something macabre about hosting a photo-op inside of a prison. Waiting for the pope to arrive at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia on Sunday, inside walls topped with barbed wire, cameramen milled about while televisions blared. Harsh lights were trained on the papal chair, handmade by prisoners, which sat empty at the front of an elementary-school-style gymnasium.

The early warning sign of a Francis sighting is always his entourage. Surrounded by hordes of men in black suits and cardinals in black cassocks, the pope’s white was striking. He changed the feel of the room, just barely, smiling with unmistakable delight at the row of female inmates seated at the front.

Over the course of his six-day visit to the United States, Francis alternately preached and spoke; this was definitely preaching. He drew from the parable of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, urging inmates to embrace the possibility of redemption. “Life means ‘getting our feet dirty’ from the dust-filled roads of life and history,” Francis said. “All of us need to be cleansed, to be washed—and me, in first place.”

It is not a common way of talking to prisoners. The man often called the Holy Father said his sins are equal to those of inmates in a medium-security correctional facility. For the politicians present and the millions of Americans watching on cable, the prisoners may have seemed like props; they were symbolic lost sheep in another feel-good, highly choreographed, televised special starring the heartwarming pope, set against the backdrop of one of America’s most intractable policy failures. But Francis really seemed to mean what he said, looking each individual in the eye: God has laid a table, and all of you are invited to join. For so public a moment, it felt strangely intimate, like eavesdropping on someone else’s pep talk.

Why does America put so many people in prisons? This is a deceptively simple question. But the answer actually illuminates much about this society’s notion of justice. In the United States, the crisis of mass incarceration cannot possibly be resolved with a single visit to a correctional facility in Philadelphia, no matter how popular this pope may be. But at the very least, Francis may bring some clarity: How should America treat the sinners who inhabit its justice system?

For Francis, visiting prisons is an old habit. When he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires, he used to celebrate Holy Thursday mass in detention and rehabilitation centers, as well as at hospitals and hospices. Since becoming pope, he has spent his Holy Thursdays at a juvenile-detention center, a home for the disabled, and a prison facility, each time washing the feet of 12 people, presumably in honor of the 12 apostles. He is the first pope in modern history to celebrate Holy Thursday outside of a basilica, according to Inés San Martín of Crux.

“My experience of Francis—and I’ve known him for 10 years—is that it’s the real deal. It’s not like he discovered care and compassion—no, this is the way he is,” said Joseph Tobin, the archbishop of Indianapolis.

These visits embody Francis’s vision of how Christians should live out the gospel. As he said to a gathering of bishops before the conclave where he was elected pope, “The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.”

One Francis-y buzzword to use here is encounter. The pope is constantly saying—and showing—that Christians belong out among people; that pastors should “smell like the sheep.” He explains this best in metaphor, as he did during his homily on migrants on the island of Lampedusa in the early days of his papacy:

We see our brother half dead on the side of the road, and perhaps we say to ourselves: “poor soul…!” and then go on our way. It’s not our responsibility, and with that we feel reassured, assuaged. The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference.

In the United States, incarceration is often discussed in terms of responsibility and choices; imprisonment is the price people pay for their poor decisions. But Francis understands crime through the language of sin. This is an important difference: The thing to remember about sin is that no one is exempt. “Listen carefully to this: Each of us is capable of doing the same thing that that man or that woman in prison did,” Francis said in 2014. “All of us have the capacity to sin and to do the same, to make mistakes in life. They are no worse than you and me!”

The Church—keeper of sin, enforcer of penance—has been connected to prisons for as long as it has existed. Jesus hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors and often spoke of the obligation to visit the jailed. From at least the fourth century forward, Church leaders locked up heretical clerics and monks, and during the papal inquisition, non-pious laymen were often tossed in cells, sentenced to ascetic, contemplative lives. In many ways, the Roman Catholic Church helped invent incarceration; the religious community saw it as a morally superior alternative to corporal punishment, according to Harry Dammer, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Scranton.

In the United States, the prison system also has religious roots, although of a more Protestant than Catholic sort. Pennsylvania Quakers established some of the country’s first prisons—it’s a neat coincidence that this is the state where Francis chose to visit inmates. Reformers of various denominations proposed different models for imprisonment in colonial America, from labor in workhouses to silent reflection in solitary confinement. Over several hundred years, the U.S. created a vast carceral state, typified by the conditions of the prison the pope visited in Philadelphia.

Pope Francis at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia (Tony Gentile / Reuters)

The Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility is the largest institution in the Philadelphia prison system; nearly 30,000 men come through its intake center each year. According to The Marshall Project, Curran-Fromhold was built for 2,016 prisoners, but now houses 2,851. Of those, roughly 80 percent have not been convicted of the crime for which they are being held; most are there because they have not paid bail while awaiting trial, reports The Guardian. Since the 1970s, the city has faced several lawsuits over unsanitary and crowded conditions in its prisons; a correctional officer told The Marshall Project that he worries about security issues.

Today, the role of the Catholic Church and other religious institutions in prison life is radically different than it was in early America. Tobin, the archbishop of Indianapolis, regularly visits prisons within the region he oversees. He described the Church’s role as having three “tiers.”

The first is bringing church to prison—“pastoral care for women and men while they’re incarcerated,” he said. “The second tier, that we’re kind of hit-and-miss on right now, is the period of transition. How can we help people, when they leave the institution, not be put in circumstances where the odds will be that they reoffend, or that they kill themselves?”

The final tier is more about the idea of justice. “It won’t happen in my lifetime, [but] I hope as a community, we’ll be able to ask: Why do we incarcerate so many people to begin with?” he said.

* * *

“My aunt, she’s home right now, she’s 78, I got some rosaries for her, I’m going to send them to her in the mail.” Michael Kelly, 31, said he had to barter with other prisoners to get the beads which Pope Francis blessed during his visit—one set for his aunt, two for his cellmates, and one for his girlfriend in Philly. After the pope shook each inmate’s hand, Church officials walked by and handed out rosaries and prayer cards. “I’ll keep the one he just gave me forever,” he said.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Kelly was eager to talk and eager to say he wasn’t guilty—he’s stuck in Curran-Fromhold because he can’t afford bail, he said. His tale seemed tailored for the moment—a throng of reporters hungry for a story descending on a handful of prisoners who have probably never before been asked to share their perspectives with anyone who has a platform. But the pope did make him cry. “The whole thing about washing of the feet … that all of us can be exonerated,” he said. “It’s not just the inmates—I like how he didn’t single us out. He was talking about everybody.”

“I just hope the message that he brought, that the [correctional officers] and the staff heard his message, and take heed to it,” said Ruth Colon, another inmate. “Most of ’em really don’t treat you fair. They treat us like we’re beneath them. I’ve made mistakes, but I’m human too. They treat us like something’s wrong with us—they treat us like dirt.”

She also said she was never going to take off the crucifix Francis gave her. “He makes us feel like we’re not the scum of the earth.”

Atlanta is an interesting case study of the Catholic prison ministry. There are 27 state prison facilities in the northern part of the state—roughly the same territory covered by the Archdiocese—along with one medium-security federal penitentiary. By comparison, there are roughly 100 churches in the same area. According to the Archdiocese, about 1.1 million of Atlanta’s 6.8 million residents are Catholic.

When he visits inmates, Richard Tolcher, the head of the prison-ministry program in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, always follows a formula. First, “I talk and pray the rosary with them,” the 73-year-old said. “Then I do a gospel reading. I spend the rest of the time, which is sometimes 40 minutes or so, just being with them.” Tolcher is a deacon—an ordained Catholic minister who is not a priest, but can preach, perform baptisms, witness at weddings, and conduct funerals. He spends most of his time with death-row inmates, many of whom aren’t set to die for another decade or so. A few of the men he has worked with have already been executed.

“The major focus is always reminding them that God loves them,” Tolcher said. “And I point out people like myself who love them as well.”

Atlanta’s archbishop, Wilton Gregory, says prison ministry is a core part of the Archdiocese’s mission—and its work is being cheered on by the pope. “[Jesus] was accused of dining with prostitutes and tax collectors and all the folks who were on the margins of first-century Palestine,” he said. “Pope Francis is saying, ‘That’s where we got our start: working with those people whom society had cast aside or undervalued or genuinely ignored.’”

Tolcher says he works with roughly 30 deacons and 120 lay people who regularly volunteer in prisons—a number that might seem low, but “some people are good at it, some people aren’t,” he said. “Not every priest or deacon is cut out to do it.”

His regular circle of death-row inmates is “one of the most delightful Catholic communities I’ve ever been associated with,” he said. “They are so into their faith. The sign of peace”—a greeting traded among those celebrating mass—“is a major exchange. They pray at the prayers of the faithful for their victims.”

Though Tolcher said this with genuine enthusiasm, this gets at the awkwardness that even the faithful might feel about working with prisoners: Other people were affected by their crimes. From a policy perspective, balancing victims’ rights with prisoners’ rights is a fundamental question of justice. But it’s also hard for individuals to grapple with the morality of ministering to prisoners, given the suffering of their victims.

Dammer, the University of Scranton professor, said people are often skeptical of religious people in prisons, and particularly those who convert behind bars. “The common thought by correctional officers or people who run prisons or even the general public is that people who are involved in religion in prison because …[they] think they’ll get parole easy or earlier,” he said. This isn’t really the case, he said; especially as states have moved away from indeterminate sentencing, or prison terms that involve a range of possible lengths, this kind of pious performance hasmattered less for helping people get parole.

“Do some inmates use religion in prison in a manipulative way? Absolutely. They do it to meet women at services, they do it to get goods and services,” he said. “Most of them, though, don’t do it for this myth—just to get out of prison. They do it to help them live in prison in a way that helps them survive.”

Religious figures play various roles in prisons. Institutions will usually have hired chaplains on staff, sometimes euphemistically called “faith representatives.” These chaplains often oversee groups of volunteers who come into prisons to run bible studies and other programs. In one prison that Dammer studied, “the only contact [inmates] had with anybody was with the chaplains, who would walk up and down the hallways and read the bible. [Otherwise], it was 23 hours a day of total solitary confinement.”

“There’s a really good reason why the evangelicals are whooping us at prison ministry.”

Even though Catholicism is the largest Christian denomination in the United States, Catholic prison chaplains and volunteers are far outnumbered by their Protestant brethren, according to Dammer. “The Protestant chaplain is usually the head chaplain; the Protestant chaplain usually has the most clients,” he said. And “many of the people who come in [as volunteers] are evangelical. They’re the ones that have the most intense faith, the most belief that you have to go into prisons and help people.” This is especially true in Southern, heavily evangelical cities like Atlanta.

The Catholic Church seems to be aware of this disparity. In a 2000 statement on prison policy, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops lamented the fear of crime in their communities. “The church doors are locked; the microphones hidden,” the organization wrote. “Parishes spend more on bars for their windows than on flowers for their altars.”

“There’s a really good reason why the evangelicals are whooping us,” said Raymond Kemp, a diocesan priest who teaches at Georgetown University. Kemp has served in two predominantly African American parishes, and years ago, he went to a training on prison ministry, where he was the only white person and the only Catholic in the room. Almost everyone else was from the same megachurch. “You know what their message was? ‘We have a seat for you in our church when you get out, and we will help you get a job. We are really interested in you becoming a member of our community, and we will walk with you as we reenter,’” Kemp said. “You know what the pope is [saying]? How come they’re doing it, and we’re not?”

Kemp told another story, of a parish in a wealthy area that serves the homeless by catering a monthly lunch at a shelter. “It’s the same approach to the prison population as we approach the homeless. I think we cater it; we delegate it off to somebody and don’t take personal responsibility ourselves,” he said. “I don’t think that’s what the pope has in mind.”

* * *

“The average length of stay for inmates, pre-trial status, is close to 200 days,” Clyde Gainey, Philadelphia’s deputy commissioner of prisons, told me at Curran-Fromhold. “That’s a long time to be in limbo, not knowing what’s going on.” It’s also twice what the national average was in 2012. The inmates I met had been in Curran-Fromhold for anywhere from a month and a half to two years. One man had been in the prison for 26 months, still awaiting a trial.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

There are all kinds of people who flow through this purgatory, and the staff tried to select a group of roughly 80 papal visitors who would be representative of the population: a handful of women from the nearby Riverside Correctional Facility; an even mix of blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asians, even though Curran-Fromhold is 70 to 80 percent black, Gainey said; and mostly Catholics, with at least a few Muslims and people who called themselves “Christian.”

But some kinds of inmates weren’t there at the pope visit. The warden, Michele Farrell, said people with disciplinary problems were excluded, as were those who are mentally ill. And for whatever reason, a number of prisoners simply declined the invitation.

From schools and hospitals to universities and fraternal clubs, Catholic institutions have long been part of the social infrastructure in the United States. Arguably, it is through these institutions that the Church can most effectively serve people who are at risk of ending up in prison, or those who have just gotten out.

“We have a preschool in downtown Indianapolis called St. Mary’s, and it serves about 290 4- and 5-year-olds from underserved communities,” Tobin, the Indianapolis archbishop, said. “The director there says we’re trying to break the womb-to-prison cycle. Kids from these blown-apart families, besides the insecurity and the abuse, they’re so far behind in being read to and having growth experiences. Without an intervention, beginning at age 5, they’re going to begin to fail.”

But American Catholic institutions have fallen on hard times. Religious sisters and brothers have sold their debt-burdened hospitals. Many dioceses have started consolidating parishes and selling off churches, often to the heartbreak of longtime attendees. Philadelphia, where the pope visited Curran-Fromhold and concluded his U.S. visit, has had particularly intense financial trouble in recent years: In 2013, it carried a long-term debt of $350 million, and has since sold off nursing homes and cut back on pension payments to begin making it back.

“In some parts of the social fabric, we can no longer provide the services directly,” Tobin said. But “I think we can’t wash our hands and say that’s up to the state of Indiana or the federal government.”

While Catholic institutions are struggling outside of prisons, inside prisons, religious staffers are facing more and more pressure. “In some places, the chaplain now is taking on many of the tasks that other people used to do, because of [budget] cuts,” Dammer said. “As a result, the chaplains are like the only ones left to turn off the lights, so to speak. They take up the role of psychologist; they’re the one to deliver the bad news when a family member dies; they’re the ‘dear John’ letters; they’re the ones that help with talking to inmates who have AIDs.”

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has made some effort to support Catholic institutions that serve prisoners. The bishops have issued a statement on the need for prison reform, and the organization has a lobbying office and at least one staffer dedicated to these efforts, Anthony Granado. “We’re very active in trying to promote sentencing reform legislation,” he said. “[It’s] really a long, long overdue discussion about mass incarceration in this country.”

“How much can you advocate and still be allowed in, and how much can you be in, and see things, and not advocate?”

But there’s a tension involved in trying to insert the Church into the policy-reform process. When Francis has made statements on political issues ranging from economics to climate change, U.S. politicians have pushed back, hard—and he’s the most powerful Catholic figure in the world. “The Church is not in the business of writing legislation or reforming the criminal code,” Archbishop Gregory said. “The Church is in the position of keeping the issue of the needs of our prison population before the people.” Not everyone agrees; Dammer said Catholic leaders often serve on panels and committees dedicated to prison-reform efforts, and Granado said he has played a role in similar organizations.

Yet Archbishop Tobin said he fears that getting too political could make him a less effective priest. In prisons, “the pastoral person is totally at the beck and call of the authorities and institution,” he said. “Anything that has appeared as rabble rousing or undue advocacy is a good way to get yourself barred. How much can you advocate and still be allowed in, and how much can you be in, and see things, and not advocate?”

With a policy issue as tangled as mass incarceration, it’s absurd to dismiss the importance of politics. But perhaps that’s not the Church’s role—or Francis’s goal. “We overestimate the importance of [his visit] being politically impactful,” Dammer said. “The long-range way it will impact people [is to] help transform the way they think about things.”

* * *

“There is no dignity in this line of work, for the employees or the inmates. It doesn’t exist here.” An officer, last name Bendig, kept laughing at my questions and shaking his head. Officially, he made a point of telling me, he was not supposed to talk to members of the media without “the express written permission of the prison commissioner,” but he kept answering my questions anyway. “It takes a certain amount of humbling to be here. You have to take it one day at a time. It’s the environment—there’s structure and security to everything.”

Todd Heisler / Reuters

At least in the part that reporters walked through, Curran-Fromhold is decorated with forcefully upbeat posters: Flexibility—stretch your potential, or Diversity—strength is not only in the similarities, but also in the differences. There are murals in places and a little bit of color on the gray cinderblock walls. But mostly, as a fellow reporter observed, “it feels institutional.”

When I asked the warden of Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, Michele Farrell, why the United States puts people in prison, she stuttered for about a minute, and eventually asked me to repeat the question. “The purpose of putting them in is basically because they have broken the laws of the country,” she finally said. “It’s part of the sentencing guidelines and part of rehabilitation.”

At Curran-Fromhold, officials have created job-training programs, she said. “The easy answer for a long time was to lock ‘em up: Out of sight, out of mind. … What everyone forgot is that eventually they’re getting out, and back into the communities, and they’re not learning any skills while they’re here.” But no number of training programs can change the essential fact of the country’s prison system: In America, the prison warden pointed out, “we have 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population.”

Before last week, the pope had never been to the United States, and it’s a fair and open question whether he can truly understand the nature of American mass incarceration. In the United States, imprisonment is largely defined by race; as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his October cover story, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” “one in four black men born since the late 1970s as spent time in prison.”

American Church leaders seem to get it, though. “The prison population is disproportionately black and brown,” said Archbishop Gregory, who is black. “It was true in Southern Illinois, it was true in Chicago, and it’s true here [in Atlanta.] … When you have such a disparity, it clearly must point to the fact that there are problems.”

Though Coates is an atheist, he and the Catholics share a focus in their examination of mass incarceration: They believe the family feels the worst of its consequences. “You don’t have to talk too long to people [in prisons] to find out that many of them are coming from incredibly blown-apart families,” Tobin said. In this year’s riots over policing kills and arrests and racism, he said, “What you see is the manifestation of despair.”

Coates notes the opposite effect. “By 2000, more than 1 million black children had a father in jail or prison,” he writes. “Paternal incarceration is associated with behavior problems and delinquency, especially among boys.” The writer approaches incarceration “from the point of view of the person at the bottom as opposed to the person who supposedly is trying to be protected by mass incarceration,” said Kemp. “That’s basically the Francis approach.”

The pope is, in general, focused on the family. His visit to the United States was pegged to the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. In October, a second synod of bishops will gather at the Vatican to discuss issues including married priests and the status of divorced Catholics within the Church. Family is the through-line in his work: His call to care for the environment, his plea to serve those in poverty, and his habit of visiting prisons are all motivated by a desire to protect humans and their communities. This includes those who have committed crimes, despite and because of the fact that they have sinned.

This is a different starting premise than that of the U.S. criminal-justice system. In America, “doing time pays off your quote-unquote ‘debt to society,’” Kemp said. “Our whole notion of justice is: How do you make somebody whole?” It’s the difference between the notions of retributive and restorative justice, between punishment and rehabilitation. The pope cannot fix mass incarceration in America, but he can acknowledge the inherent worth of its prisoners.

“For a pope to go on Holy Thursday to wash the feet of 12 young people who are in a detention center is basically to say, ‘We’re here to heal and to strengthen, and to help repair you to come back into society,’” said Kemp. “Most people look at that picture and say, ‘Oh, that’s cute.’ … Nobody gets the real message: These folks are worthy of our consideration from a radically different point of view than most of us are thinking.”

Pope-watchers often talk about Francis’s challenges to the countries he visits. On the very last day of his visit to the United States, he left this challenge for this country.

“It’s prisons, but it is so much deeper. It is [getting] out of your gated communities into places where the gates swing the other way,” said Kemp. “This the gospel coming alive again in the life of the Church. Some people think it’s scary. But I think we’re going to see some good stuff happening.”