Pope Visit Postscript: The Excluded Inmates

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Pope Francis may have left the U.S., but the fall-out of his trip is just beginning. I have a long story up today on his Sunday visit to the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia. There’s one piece of it that I thought was specifically worth highlighting here:

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 a logistical and security point of view, the choice to exclude the mentally ill and the “badly behaved” is totally understandable; it would have been awful for something to happen to the pope. But Francis constantly speaks about the “culture of exclusion” that keeps people like the poor, the disabled, and the elderly marginalized. The people Francis always wants to see most are those who don’t fit the mold of being healthy and well-behaved. And perhaps the inmates who most needed to see Francis are those who struggle in the most acute ways with their lives in prison.

In 1983, John Paul II went to see Alì Agca in the Rebibbia prison in Rome. Two years earlier, Agca had shot the pope in St. Peter’s Square, which almost killed him. The two men sat in a cell together and talked. If a pope can sit alone with his would-be assassin, he can almost certainly shake hands with less-than-perfect inmates in a gymnasium filled with correctional officers. (I counted at least 31 in in the room at one point.)