While preaching what he calls a “Gospel of the marginalized” and reaching out to society’s outcasts, Pope Francis has made a point of visiting prisons during his travels abroad. And his coming trip to the United States — which has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world — is no exception.
On September 27, Francis will stop at a prison in Philadelphia. He will meet a group of about 100 inmates at the end of his five-day U.S. tour, in which he will have had plenty of encounters with President Barack Obama and others among the powerful in New York and Washington.
Inmates at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility plan to give the pontiff a chair they will have spent about a month making. Emblazoned with Francis’ distinctive coat of arms, the high-backed chair was hewn out of walnut timbers and resembles a throne.
Hakiem Burke, who is a Muslim, has been working diligently on the project.
“Since the chair came in I’ve been sanding it, applying finishing oil to it, just to make the texture of the wood richer,” he told VOA during a media visit to the prison.
There are no power tools in the workshop, where convicted felons and other offenders make office furniture for Philacor — a program at the Philadelphia Prison System that manufactures 40,000 items a year for local schools and government offices.
The not-for-profit program is aimed at teaching inmates skills such as carpentry, printing and catering to help them reintegrate into society after they get out.
“The pope is coming to instill hope, that there’s another opportunity. You have still life in you, and so this is an opportunity to give back,” said Blanche Carney, the prison system’s deputy commissioner for restorative and transitional services.
Burke’s conviction was for a gun-related offense, and his sentence is almost done.
“This is my first time in here. And it’s going to be my last, too,” he said.
Before he walks free, however, he may be one of the 100 inmates who get to meet the pope when he stops here before celebrating Mass in front of an expected crowd of more than 1 million people on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.