Pope Francis’ July 10 visit to a prison in Bolivia was just one of several dozen events over the course of the recent papal trip to Latin America. But for many of the inmates and workers present at the notorious Palmasola Prison in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, the Pope’s visit was a turning point and an invitation to make a new start. “The man who is standing before you is one who has been forgiven. A man who was and is saved from his many sins,” Pope Francis told the prisoners that day. Father Leonardo da Silva Costa, the National Coordinator for Prison Ministry in Bolivia, said many of the prisoners took the Pope’s words to heart. “It was a thrill to see him at ease and speaking his native language. I was moved by his expression when he saw the statue of the Virgin of Copacabana on the way between the women’s section, the prison administration offices, and the men’s section,” the priest recounted to CNA. After the Pope departed, Fr. Da Silva — who was in charge of the visit — said he noted that the inmates were talking among themselves. “They wanted to tell about what they heard, what moved them, how they felt, what they were thinking and how life would be going forward.” “People cried together, and their eyes were filled with joy and hope. Some of them wondered how it could be possible that the representative of Christ on earth would come to see them,” the priest explained. “The police, the security guards, came away from the meeting with a joy that was unusual, brotherly, a smile unlike any other…it was a revolution of love. Even non-Catholics were saying, ‘What a grace!’” Even so, it was not an easy encounter. Three of the prisoners offered their testimony to the Pope, speaking about the rough prison conditions and the government’s prison policy. Palmasola Prison is a maximum security facility notorious for its corruption, bribery and gang activity. Security guards are stationed only outside the facility; the inside is a “prison village,” run by gangs of prisoners themselves. Might makes right for the 3,000 inmates who are able to move about freely in the facility. Securing one’s own prison cell costs money, as do blankets, decent food, and protection from other prisoners. Two years ago, a riot killed more than 30 people, most of them burned to death. “This is real life in the prisons in Bolivia. I even think they really toned down their complaints. They didn’t tell everything,” Fr. Da Silva said of the testimonies. “All the authorities that have the power to manage, administer, decide upon and implement prison policy in the whole country were there,” he continued. “They didn’t hear anything new or surprising. It was a cry for help, aid, relief, to the point of desperation, taking advantage of the Pope’s presence to bring about structural change.” While those in the prison are separated from society, “they haven’t lost their ability to analyze reality, to provide thoughtful contributions, knowing prison conditions from the inside with the goal of improving them,” the priest said. Asked whether they were afraid of reprisals or if they had received any warning, he replied, “I still believe in democracy, in good intentions, in an ethical conscience, in morality and in the recovery of the values that are dormant in everyone. They asked the Pope to ‘be their spokesman and to make known the constant violations of fundamental rights.’” Now, a few weeks after the Pope’s visit, Fr. Da Silva said, “it’s expected that there will be an evaluation of everything that was organized, articulated and experienced with the representatives of the inmates, the authorities and the Church.” He voiced hope that all of those present for the encounter with the Pope will not merely return to their everyday routine. “We want to get the most we can out of this pastoral visit, reducing the bars, going forward with restorative justice, reducing the walls, and closing up the open wounds,” he explained. “(W)hat we have to do now is publish the Pope’s messages, re-read them, listen to them over and over again, pray, give thanks, form committees and working groups.” Concerning possible changes in the country’s prison ministry, Fr. Da Silva said, “We have to keep on listening, show them love, and set in motion actions to improve the system and the lives of the prisoners.” This requires “pastoral ministry with a prophetic visibility, involving comprehensive evangelization, proclamation, condemnation (of evil), witness, and commitment, with the feelings, thoughts and actions of Jesus Christ.” Additionally, “we’re going to need to help the authorities respond with greater sensitivity to the prison problem, revising the inconsistencies in legislation, addressing social inequalities, poverty and violence, and working on prevention, not just rehabilitation,” he said.
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