At the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center (PICC), over a dozen inmates have been working on a special chair for Pope Francis when he visits the nearby Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility on September 27, 2015.
According to Philly.com, the inmates are part of the PHILACOR program, a vocational program that helps inmates learn transferable skills. Five inmates carved the chair, and others are working on the details, decoration, and upholstery.
The chair was designed by Anthony Newman, assistant director of PHILACOR. He chose walnut because it’s native to America and added papal crosses to each side of the chair, as well as a Jesuit emblem near the headrest. So far the chair has taken four weeks to create, and is nearly six feet high.
Many of the workers will be in the audience of 100 inmates and their families when Francis visits Curran-Fromhold the same day as the papal Mass in Philadelphia.
“It really gives you joy knowing you’re making something for someone so big that’s coming to the city,” another inmate, Michael Green of Chester, said. “And that everyone’s going to get a chance to see the craft we’re learning here.”
Green acknowledges that he and other inmates “made bad decisions to be in jail, but by doing this right here, it gives me a sense of gratitude that I can give something back to my community and be a better person when I come home.”
While many agree that prisoners are a great group for Francis to meet with because they need hope, others expressed their desire that the pontiff to make time to meet with murder victims families.
Wilfredo Rojas, a retired corrections officer, who worked at Curran-Fromhold for 25 years, is one of them. He’s glad the pope will visit an often-forgotten population, but his 34-year-old son, Alejandro Rojas-Garcia, was murdered in January. He has sent dozens of letters — to the Vatican, the mayor, and people at the World Meeting of Families — hoping to arrange a meeting with the pope.
“We think it’s great for prisoners and their families – he’s showing mercy for prisoners – but we want a balanced approach for families of murder victims,” Rojas said. “For us, we’re already sentenced to a lifetime of grief.”
In the meantime, even the prisoners who are not Catholic are excited to be working on a chair for the pope. One man says he’s still hoping to meet Francis.
“I’m Christian, so as long as they’re talking about God, they’re talking to me,” he said.
The inmates will also give the pope a basket of fruit grown in the prison orchard and a plaque engraved in the textile shop with the words from Matthew 25:35-40, an idea from Deputy Warden Gerald May, a lector at his Catholic parish:
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”