SANTIAGO, Chile – When a pope visits a country, it’s often hard to know what immediate impact it has – that is, beyond small “miracles” such as a rare crime-free day in Bogotá and Manila, or people voluntarily picking up their own trash in venues such as Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach.
Yet in the case of Pope Francis’s Jan. 15-18 visit to Chile, the first possible fruit might be something quite different, launching a reform in the country’s female penitentiary system.
On Tuesday, Francis visited the female prison San Joaquin, in Santiago, Chile’s capital. He met with some 500 inmates, including Janet Zurita, who asked the pontiff to intervene in their favor to change the sentences for mothers of under-age children.
In her remarks to the pontiff, Zurita told him about the dreams and hopes of those who are deprived of their freedom, and thanked him for having thought not only of them, but also of their children, whom she said are “those who suffer the most for our mistakes.”
The very next day, Estela Ortiz, the executive secretary of Chile’s National Council of Infancy, announced that the organization will study possible measures so that the underage children of the prisoners can accompany their mothers in the jails.
As the system stands, female inmates in Chile can only have their children with them until they turn two. After that, the children are either put under the care of a family member or into the foster care system.
Speaking with a local news outlet, Ortiz said that plans have already been made to get together with the head of the police department and see what the situation is like.
“[We want to see] the immediate steps that we can take, based on the request they posed yesterday [Tuesday],” she told Cooperativa.
Ortiz also said that her council is looking into what measures can be taken so that mothers can have their children with them, at least until they turn three, especially when they have no family members to care for them.
Further down the road, they will also evaluate the possibility of the women serving their time in their homes, so they can be with their children.
From the beginning, prisoners and prison reform has been a clear priority of Francis’s pontificate.
Just two weeks after his election in March 2013, the new pope visited a youth detention facility in Rome to celebrate Holy Thursday to wash the feet of twelve inmates, including Muslims and women.
Since then, visits to prisons have become a standard feature of papal travel, including a celebrated stop at the “Centro de Readaptación Social No. 3” in Juarez, Mexico, during a papal trip to Mexico in February 2016.
In November 2016, a group of roughly fifty inmates in an Italian men’s prison called the Costantino Satta detention center organized a “flash mob” celebrating the pope’s leadership on prison reform, including Greeks, Romanians, Moroccans, Tunisians, Tanzanians, Italians, and even a couple of Brits and Canadians, representing a variety of different religious backgrounds as well, such as Catholics, Muslims, Orthodox, Buddhists and atheists.
Charmingly, the prisoners performed a zumba-style routine of spins, funky steps and arm swings set to the tune of “Pope is Pop,” a song written about the pontiff by Italian composer Igor Nogarotto.
After a series of prison riots in Brazil in January 2017 left more than 50 people dead, Francis renewed his appeal “that prisons might be places of re-education and re-integration into society; and that the conditions of the life of prisoners might be worthy of human persons.”