PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - When Dino Robinson was sent to Philadelphia’s largest jail to await trial, the tattooed, 29-year-old inmate could hardly have imagined he would wind up in the furniture shop upholstering a special chair to be presented to Pope Francis.
Yet that is the task assigned to Robinson, one of 2,800 inmates at the Curran Fromhold Correctional Facility, the drab, low-slung jail on the city’s outskirts that the pope will visit in September during his first tour of the United States.
With six weeks to go before the pope’s arrival, it is a busy and anxious time for many of the employees and inmates. Workers are modifying corridors to accommodate Francis and his entourage. Inmates are waiting to find out which of them will be chosen to meet the pope. And staff members are busy checking and double-checking security protocols.
“A visit by the pope, it’s an extraordinary thing,” said Lou Giorla, the city’s prison commissioner and the man who is overseeing preparations for the Sept. 27 visit. “It’ll be a chance for the world to take a look.”
One of 17 stops on the pope’s first U.S. tour, the visit to the inner-city jail is a reminder of the emphasis the Argentine pontiff has placed on social justice issues since being named head of the Roman Catholic Church in March 2013.
The pope’s stop at the Philadelphia facility will be the latest in a series of prison visits by Francis, an outspoken opponent of the death penalty and lengthy prison terms. He has counseled teenagers in juvenile detention in Brazil. In Bolivia, he kissed inmates in the country’s most violent prison.
His visit also comes at a time when a growing number of Democrats and Republicans are questioning tough criminal sentencing policies that have left the United States with the highest incarceration rate in the developed world. Barack Obama, who last month became the first sitting U.S. president to tour a federal penitentiary, has called for legislation overhauling sentencing rules.
Advocates for prisoner rights say they are pleased the pope has decided to put the issue on his agenda during the U.S. tour, which will include attending a conference on family life in Philadelphia, plus stops in Washington and New York.
“It’s really going to bring a level of humanity to the prison world and show that prisoners are people and deserve to be recognized,” said Ann Schwartzman, policy and program director at the Pennsylvania Prison Society, an advocacy group.
The Curran Fromhold facility, named after a warden and deputy warden killed by inmates at another Philadelphia jail in 1973, opened in 1995. It holds defendants awaiting trial and convicted criminals serving sentences of 2-1/2 years or less.
Sitting on a 25-acre (10-hectare) lot at the city’s northeast edge, it is one of the newest of the six Philadelphia prison system facilities. Aside from the barbed wire that tops its outer walls, it looks like a modern high school from the outside, where murals painted by inmates stretch along the walls of the front parking lot.
Inside, the atmosphere is more intimidating.
Guards screen visitors with metal detectors, and heavy steel doors separate inmates dressed in blue or bright orange jumpsuits from the world outside. Video surveillance is constant.
The pope’s visit is scheduled to consist of a brief meeting in a gymnasium with about 100 male and female inmates and their families. The pope is not due to tour the jail.
Giorla, who learned in February that the Vatican was considering one of his jails for a papal visit, said his staff hoped the pope would use the occasion to recognize the value of their work, which he said was mostly overlooked. Still, he expressed certain reservations.
“This is an unpredictable environment so you never know what’s going to happen,” said Giorla, who started out as a guard in Philadelphia’s prison system 33 years ago.
The entire complex will go on lockdown during the papal visit, and the U.S. Secret Service is set to take over security for the pope. City courts will close, delaying any prisoner transfers.
Prison authorities will have to assure no disruptions in basic daily routines, including serving 25,000 meals, giving 10,000 doses of medication and conducting a count of prisoners three to five times.
In the prison’s furniture shop, Robinson and another inmate, 31-year-old Brandan Hargrose, are getting ready to do their handiwork on the chair, which is being carved out of a solid block of walnut at another prison unit. Its design is in keeping with the simplicity that has become this pope’s hallmark.
Neither man is Catholic but both said they would want to meet Francis.
“I’d be glad to see him,” said Robinson, his neck covered in tattoos and his head shaved. “It gives us hope that somebody still cares.”
Editing by Frank McGurty and Will Dunham