Pope Francis speaks during an audience in the Paul VI...

Pope Francis speaks during an audience in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican on Sept. 5, 2015. Credit: EPA / Angelo Carconi

Pope Francis has made those who are imprisoned a very visible part of his ministry -- so much so that the itinerary of his trip this month to three American cities is to include a visit, at his request, to a Philadelphia prison.

The announcement stunned administrators at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, the largest of Philadelphia's six prisons. They are preparing to greet the pontiff at a ceremony Sept. 27 that will include male and female inmates, inmates' families and prison staffers.

"I just about fell out of my chair," Louis Giorla, commissioner of the Philadelphia Prison System, said during an interview at the prison, recalling the moment when city officials informed him of the visit. "It'll be an astounding event."

Giorla added he hopes the pope's interaction with the inmates will be life-changing for them.

"I just hope it lets them know that they're not forgotten," he said. "That their spiritual lives are not over; their physical lives are not over; that they have a chance to change."

Warden Michele Farrell, in a separate phone interview, said her reaction was "surprise and disbelief." She added, "It's definitely a privilege, an honor and a thrill to have the pope come to this facility."

The pope has expressed his concern for prisoners in starkly personal terms, telling a journalist recently, "I think to myself 'I, too, could be here.' That is, none of us can be sure that we would never commit a crime, something for which we'd be put in prison."

Francis' prison ministry has been on display since his papacy began in 2013. That year, he celebrated Holy Thursday Mass in a juvenile detention facility in Rome, where he washed the feet of the young male and female offenders. This year, he visited Rome's Rebibbia prison, where on Holy Thursday he again washed the feet of the inmates.

On his recent trip to South America, Francis went to the Palmasola prison in Bolivia, described in media reports as the most notorious of that country's 32 prisons. According to an Associated Press account of the July 10 visit, he urged prison officials to rehabilitate prisoners, advocating they be educated and socialized to return to society to function as law-abiding citizens.

At Curran-Fromhold in Philadelphia, about 2,800 male inmates are held in a squat brick structure located along a mostly industrial strip in the Holmesburg section. It is contiguous to the five other prisons that together comprise the city's prison compound. The city's total inmate population numbers about 8,000, officials said.

About 75 percent of the prison's inmates are waiting to be sentenced, with the remainder serving what are considered county sentences of 2 years or less, Giorla said. Those receiving longer sentences ultimately are transported to a Pennsylvania state prison facility.

Inmates at Curran-Fromhold "run the gamut of offenses, from retail theft to multiple murder, because of the pretrial population," the commissioner said.

As Giorla walked along the prison's white concrete-block corridors, inmates could be seen in prison-issue orange or blue jumpsuits. In Alpha 2-1 -- one of four housing units there -- a lone inmate wearing the orange uniform was doing situps in a small enclosed exercise area, adjacent to a cellblock, that contained a single basketball hoop.

'Flagship' prison

Farrell, the warden -- one of three female wardens in the city's prison system -- called Curran-Fromhold the "flagship, our largest facility" and said it is presented with many challenges, among them handling about 30,000 admissions per year and dealing with inmates with mental health issues.

Francis is expected to visit in the prison's gymnasium with up to 100 inmates -- men and women -- from Curran-Fromhold and other city prisons. Also on hand will be members of the prison staff and family members of some inmates. Everyone must be approved by the Secret Service, Giorla said.

"The Holy Father made the decision to visit [Curran-Fromhold] -- and to include the families of inmates," said Ken Gavin, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

The visit to the city will be the final leg of a long journey for the 78-year-old pontiff that includes stops in Cuba; Washington, D.C.; and New York City. His trip to the United States was sparked by the Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families, being held in Philadelphia Sept. 22-25, the first time the global meeting will be held in this country. That event is expected to draw as many as 15,000 delegates from 150 countries.

Francis' two-day stay in Philadelphia includes an address at Independence Hall; a visit to a seminary; a Mass at The Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul; and attendance at the outdoor Festival of Families, which will feature musical performances by acclaimed artists -- an event expected to attract 750,000 to 1 million.

On Sept. 27, his final day in the United States, Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Curran-Fromhold and later that afternoon conduct the closing Mass of the World Meeting of Families. The Mass will be held on Benjamin Franklin Parkway before an immense audience expected to number more than 1.5 million.

Papal scholars said Francis' focus on prisoners has long been a part of his pastoral ministry and is in keeping with Catholic tradition.

"He's very interested in the imitation of Jesus, insofar as the Gospels list a number of what Catholics call the 'corporal works of mercy,' " said Julie Byrne, who holds the Msgr. Thomas J. Hartman Endowed Chair in Catholic Studies at Hofstra University.

"Visiting prisons is one of them. It's kind of a technical phrase in Catholicism that, among other things, includes feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick," Byrne said. It is a "list of material things that Christians can do for other people."

Francis, she said, also is "leading by example."

The prison visit comes at an auspicious time, when concerns about people who are incarcerated and their treatment are gaining currency in policy debates, Byrne said.

"It's a worldwide issue" -- and a particularly potent one in the United States, she said.

"There's new attention to the prison industrial complex, to incarcerating a disproportionate amount of people of color, unequal sentencing," Byrne added. "I think there's a movement in the U.S. of attention on how we've gone wrong in the prison system."

Inmate statistics

According to a federal Bureau of Justice Statistics 2013 report, there were an estimated 1.57 million people incarcerated in federal and state prisons on Dec. 31, 2013. The report said that non-Hispanic blacks, at 37 percent, were the largest portion of male inmates, above non-Hispanic whites, at 32 percent, and Hispanics, at 22 percent. Local jail populations were not included.

The report said white females made up the largest percentage of females incarcerated in federal and state prisons, at 49 percent, compared with 22 percent for black females. However, the imprisonment rate for black women was 113 per 100,000 and 51 per 100,000 for white women. Hispanic women accounted for nearly 17 percent of the women, according to the report, but it gave no rate per 100,000 for that group.

In the Philadelphia Prison System, the racial and ethnic breakdown of the 8,035 inmates incarcerated as of Aug. 28 was 69 percent black; 16.8 percent Hispanic; 11.8 percent white and 1.5 percent "other," according to data provided by Shawn Hawes, the prison system's spokeswoman.

Terrence Tilley, the Avery Cardinal Dulles S.J. professor of Catholic theology at Fordham University in New York City, noted that Francis is "fundamentally a pastor to the marginalized. So when he was archbishop in Buenos Aires, he visited and worked with the poor and prisoners. He has continued that as part of his service as Bishop of Rome."

Tilley and Byrne both recalled Pope John Paul II's famous visit to an Italian prison in 1983, during which he spoke privately with and publicly forgave Mehmet Ali Agca -- who had tried to kill him. Agca, sentenced to life imprisonment in Italy for his 1981 attack on the pope, was pardoned in 2000 at the pope's request and extradited to his native Turkey, where he was imprisoned for other crimes. He was released in 2010.

While John Paul II traveled to Philadelphia in 1979 during his first trip to the United States, Francis will be the first pope to visit a Philadelphia prison, the archdiocese said.

The inmates are set to present the pope with a gift: a chair made from a "rich walnut wood" being constructed by inmates who participate in PHILACOR, one of the prison system's vocational programs, authorities said.

"There's nothing better than a personal gift that you make yourself," Giorla said.

Giorla, seated at a large conference table made by inmates, said in addition to furniture manufacturing, other vocational programs include engraving, printing, dry cleaning, horticulture and a dog-training program. Products made by inmates are sold only to other government agencies, he said.

Farrell, a 30-year veteran of the city's prisons system who has been Curran-Fromhold's warden for the past five years, reported that many inmates "are very excited about the opportunity" to meet the pope.

Across many faiths

About 1,200 of the city's 8,000 inmates identify as Catholic, according to Giorla.

"We have just about every faith represented. We have a chapel in this facility," Giorla said of Curran-Fromhold. In the city's other prisons, there are areas designated for chapel use depending on the space.

As they prepare for the pope's arrival, Giorla and Farrell offered personal reflections, both noting their Catholic roots.

"I'm a product of the Catholic school system in Philadelphia for 12 years," Farrell said, "and I also went to a Catholic college . . . Holy Family University in Philadelphia."

Giorla, who graduated from a Catholic high school in the city, said being reared a Catholic, the pope for his family "was always the final authority on our religious values and practices -- somewhat of a distant figure, a mysterious figure. So having a personal meeting with the pope, you know, will really be impressive."

Giorla also highlighted what he called Pope Francis' "informal manner."

"His drive, it seems, is to reach out to everyone," he said.

Gavin, the spokesman for the archdiocese, echoed that sentiment. "Certainly, ministry to those incarcerated has proven to be an important pastoral priority for Pope Francis, with his keen focus on embracing all members of society, especially those too often overlooked or marginalized."

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