On his final day in Bolivia, Pope Francis visited the Reform Center of Santa Cruz-Palmasola, one of the most controversial and over-crowded prisons in the country.
Housing some 4,000 inmates, along with their families, the history of Palmasola goes back to 1989, when the Bolivian Government decided to move the prison of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, which up to then had been in the heart of the urban center, to the outskirts of the city. At present the prison houses 36% of Bolivia’s prisoners.
Due to the lack of infrastructure, prisoners are obliged to pay for their own cells. If they do not have money, they must either find a way to share with another inmate or seek refuge under stairs or corridors.
The Holy Father made his way into the prison center, which seemed more like a crowded city, in a smaller golf cart that allowed better mobility.
Several inmates gave their experiences of incarceration, as well as asking the Pope to intervene to the State on their behalf in order to seek better living conditions.
Beginning his address, the Pope said that he could not leave the country without visiting them to share the faith and hope that is “the fruit of the love revealed on the cross of Christ.”
“You may be asking yourselves: ‘Who is this man standing before us?’” he pondered. “I would like to reply to that question with something absolutely certain about my own life. The man standing before you is a man who has experienced forgiveness. A man who was, and is, saved from his many sins. That is who I am. I don’t have much more to give you or to offer you, but I want to share with you what I do have and what I love. It is Jesus Christ, the mercy of the Father.”
The Pope reflected on the love, mercy and forgiveness of God, capable of restoring one’s dignity if lost. Recalling the incarceration of Sts. Peter and Paul, the 78-year-old Pontiff said that despite losing their freedom, there was something that kept them from falling into despair.
“That something was prayer, both individually and with others,” he said. “They prayed, and they prayed for one another. These two forms of prayer became a network to maintain life and hope. And that network keeps us from yielding to despair. It encourages us to keep moving forward. It is a network which supports life, your own lives and those of your families.”
The Argentinian Pope encouraged the inmates and their families, inviting them to contemplate Christ crucified in whose wounds one can place their pain and sins.
“Talk to the priests who come here, talk to them! Jesus wants to help you get up, always,” he said. “This certainty makes us work hard to preserve our dignity.”
While acknowledging that difficulties exist within their prison system, such as overcrowding, lack of justice and violence, the Pope said that not all hope is lost.
“Here, in this rehabilitation center, the way you live together depends to some extent on yourselves,” he said. “Suffering and deprivation can make us selfish of heart and lead to confrontation, but we also have the capacity to make these things an opportunity for genuine fraternity. Help one another. Do not be afraid to help one another. The devil is looking for rivalry, division, gangs. Keep working to make progress.”
Addressing those who work at the center, the Pope urged them to put aside the mentality that divides people into “good” and “bad”, but instead to focus on helping others. In doing so, they will contribute in creating better conditions and giving them dignity.
After a moment of silent prayer, the Pope concluded his address with a blessing upon the inmates and asking them to pray for him. Prior to his departure, Pope Francis was given several handmade gifts from the inmates, including a hammock, an oil painting of himself and a wooden carved image.