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.
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 out 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 prisons, 22,500 more than capacity, Italian news reports said. Just last week, the Cabinet approved measures to ease the overcrowding, making it easier for people to be placed under house arrest and requiring judges to confirm arrests within 48 hours.
Severino stressed that pre-trial detention _ which is a major factor in overcrowding _ must be abolished for all but exceptional crimes. She read a letter to the pope from a detainee in a Cagliari prison to make her point.
"It's sad and frustrating to have made a mistake because sooner or later, you begin to question yourself and your ability to make amends and be reinserted into society, and you become convinced of being unable to change your life," the letter read. "You lose hope that you can be accepted as someone worthy of esteem, stained forever, and you lose the strength to live."
Benedict responded by saying that a reform of the system should make use of alternatives to detention.
After greeting a handful of prisoners and police officers one by one, Benedict stood by as a cypress tree was unveiled on the prison grounds to mark the occasion.
Pope John Paul II made a historic visit to Rebibbia in 1983 when he met with and forgave Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish gunman who had shot him in St. Peter's Square two years prior. Agca finished his sentence in Turkey and was released in 2010.
In a 2002 visit to the Italian parliament, John Paul appealed to Italian authorities for clemency for some prisoners.