When Pope Francis visits to the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia this weekend, he will be stepping into a physical emblem of the woes of America's justice system.
About 80% of the jail's approximately 2,870 inmates haven't been convicted of the crime they've been charged with. Most are there because they just can't afford to make bail before their trials, a prison spokesperson told the Guardian yesterday. The jail is so overcrowded that the city has contracted with two other jurisdictions (one in New Jersey) to house its overflow population. Other times, it places a third inmate in a cell intended for two people, a Pew Charitable Trust report found.
For this, the city's taxpayers pay dearly. "Philadelphia spends seven cents out of every tax dollar on holding people in its jails," the Pew report found. "Its spending on jails is nearly as high as that of Cook County, Illinois, even though Cook County, which includes the city of Chicago, has more than three times as many residents as Philadelphia." In total, the city spends more on jailing its residents than any government function besides policing and human services. Its budget is equal to the health department and the streets department combined.
Inmates pay a price, too. In general, studies show they are more likely to be found guilty the longer they are held in jail for not being able to pay bail. Too frequently, these are the inmates who allege abuse or improper medical care or even die in custody. Some 77% of inmates who died in local jails in 2013 had not been convicted of their crimes, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. There were 738 such cases that year, the most recent figures available.
Mike Brady was one of those cases. In 2011, Brady died in the same facility Pope Francis will be visiting, after prison officers responded with pepper spray and physical violence to his calls for medical treatment to help with his drug withdrawal. In 2013, his family won a wrongful death lawsuit that claimed jail staff showed "negligence and deliberate indifference to a serious medical need."
Now, Brady's mother is asking that pope bless the ground inside the prison where her son, a lifelong Catholic, died. "I feel like [Pope Francis] was sent there for a reason, and the reason for me is that he's blessing the ground that my son died on," Karen Brady told Philly.com. "Just his presence there is a blessing. I definitely have a sense of peace knowing that my son is getting a blessing, even though he never got last rites."
In an often quoted interview with the Argentinian daily La Voz del Pueblo, Pope Francis commented that every time he visits a prison, he feels the urge to cry, asking himself: "Why did God make it so that I'm not here?"
"None of us are certain that we will never commit a crime, or do something worthy of incarceration," he said. "I feel pain for the prisoners and thank God for not being there, but at the same time that's a convenient thankfulness, because they never had the opportunities I had."
In his home country of Argentina, the incarcerated population is about 154 per 100,000 residents, according to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, making the nation the 96th most incarcerated in the world, per capita. Comparatively, in the United States, there are 698 inmates per 100,000 residents, making it the second most incarcerated nation in the world per capita. Only the tiny island nation of Seychelles, which has jailed 735 of its estimated 89,000 residents, tops it in this measure.
The U.S. has over 2.2 million people in its prison population, accounting for about a quarter of the world's prisoners, despite having only about five percent of its population.
This week, when the Pope asks, "Why did God make it so that I'm not here?" he will in essence be asking God: "How was I so lucky not to be born in the U.S.?"
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.