By Philip Pullella
ROME (Reuters) - Pope Benedict brought tears to the eyes of hardened criminals Sunday, telling them in a visit to one of Italy's toughest prisons that overcrowding was a "double sentence" and whatever their offence, it could not erase their dignity.
His Christmas visit to Rebibbia prison on the outskirts of Rome took place two days after Italy's new government announced extraordinary measures to improve prison conditions.
The 84-year-old pope appeared in good form, reading an address to inmates and delivering unscripted answers to their questions for about half an hour. He greeted a number of them personally in the prison's church.
"I know that overcrowding and degradation in prison can make detention even more bitter," he told representatives of several hundred inmates of the prison, which has 500 more inmates than the 1,240 it was built to hold.
"Prisoners are human beings who are worthy, despite their crime, of being treated with respect and dignity," he said.
He said overcrowding and poor conditions were tantamount to serving "a double sentence" and that authorities should do everything possible to improve the situation.
New Justice Minister Paola Severino, who attended the meeting, announced on Friday a decree that would ease overcrowding by allowing many prisoners to serve the last 18 months of their sentences under house arrest.
Italy has some 68,000 inmates, 24,000 more than normal capacity, among the worst rates of overcrowding in Europe.
"A VERY DIFFICULT SITUATION"
"I know that you live in a very difficult situation that often, instead of helping to renew your friendship with God and humanity, makes the situation worse," he told a prisoner named Rocco who asked him if politicians knew what prisoners endure.
He heard one African, Omar, speak of "our suffering and that of our families." Another African, Okai, asked: "Does God listen only to the rich?"
An Italian inmate named Federico complained that inmates who are HIV positive are looked at "ferociously."
The pope told him: "People speak ferociously even against the pope, but nonetheless we have to move on."
One prisoner read "The prayer from behind bars" which he had composed.
Alberto, an Italian inmate, told the pope he felt he was a new man who had paid his debt to society. He wanted to know why he could not go home to his 2-month-old daughter. He showed the pope a picture of the girl, named Gaia, and her mother.
Tears welled up in Alberto's eyes when the pope told him: "I am happy that you consider youself a new man and that you have a splendid daughter ... I pray and hope that you can soon embrace your daughter and wife and form a splendid family."
Severino, the justice minister, acknowledged in her address to the pope that he was visiting "a place of profound suffering" and that statistics could not do justice to the "terrible conditions of persons who keep their experiences, sufferings in their hearts."
There have been calls in Italy for the government to proclaim a general amnesty for those jailed for minor crimes and the pope heard the prisoners' views on this.
As he left the complex, they chanted "amnesty, amnesty, amnesty."
(Editing by Alistair Lyon)