ROME — Pope Benedict XVI made an emotional visit Sunday to Rome's main prison, meeting with detainees, denouncing prison overcrowding and calling for greater dignity for inmates everywhere.
Benedict spent over an hour at Rome's Rebibbia prison, fielding questions from a half-dozen inmates who spoke of their despair at being kept in overcrowded cells, away from their families, some of them sick with AIDS, and of having repented for their crimes.
The 84-year-old pope told the 300 men and women gathered in the prison chapel that he loved them and prayed for them. He reminded them that Christ was imprisoned before being sentenced to "the most savage punishment" of all — death.
"Inmates are human beings who, despite their crimes, deserve to be treated with respect and dignity," he told them. "They need our concern."
Benedict decried Italy's overcrowded prisons and urged the government to overhaul the system so that prisoners aren't subjected to a "double punishment" by serving time in insufferable conditions.
And he noted that justice doesn't have to just be about righting a wrong, but also showing mercy. For God, he said, "justice and charity coincide; there's no just action that isn't also an act of mercy and forgiveness, and at the same time there's no merciful action that isn't perfectly just."
The prisoners seemed truly grateful for the visit, with more than one wiping tears from his eyes as Benedict responded to their pleas. And Benedict himself seemed touched by their heartfelt welcome: One inmate gave him a picture he had made of a white dove perched on prison bars; another showed him a photo of his newborn baby girl; another read a prayer he had written about feeling forgotten by God.
Benedict said he hoped his visit to Rebibbia, which houses some 1,700 inmates, would not only give encouragement to the prisoners as Christmas nears, but would draw attention to their plight.
On hand for the visit was Italy's justice minister Paola Severino, who acknowledged the pope was visiting a "place of profound suffering."
There are an estimated 68,000 inmates in Italian prisoners, 22,500 more than capacity. Just last week, the Cabinet approved measures to ease the overcrowding by making it easier for people to be placed under house arrest, and by requiring judges to confirm arrests within 48 hours.
"For too long we have had data that shows an incredibly difficult and uncomfortable situation" that shows "the terrible condition of people who keep their experiences, sufferings and hope in their heart," Severino said.
Benedict stood by as a cypress tree was unveiled on the prison grounds to mark the occasion.