Pope Francis’s Radical Defense Of Prisoners’ Rights


Pope Francis offered a passionate defense of the rights of prisoners on Thursday, reiterating the Vatican’s historic opposition to capital punishment while also voicing strict condemnation to life sentences, inhuman prison conditions, and attempts to fix all social problems with incarceration.

Speaking to members of the International Association of Criminal Law at the Vatican, Francis made several remarks about the evils of human trafficking and corruption. But in addition to lambasting criminal acts, the pontiff also spoke emotionally about the rights of criminals, offering a lengthy diatribe against the death penalty — which the Catechism of the Catholic Church warns against — as well as life sentences for prisoners.

“All Christians and people of goodwill are called today to fight not only for the abolition of the death penalty be it legal or illegal, in all of its forms, but also for the improvement of prison conditions in the respect of the human dignity of those who have been deprived of freedom,” Francis said. “I link this to the death sentence. In the Penal Code of the Vatican, the sanction of life sentence is no more. A life sentence is a death sentence which is concealed”.

The first Argentinian pope — who has spoken out on behalf of immigrants, the poor, and the environment in the past — also took issue with prison conditions that undermine human dignity.

“The deplorable conditions of detention that take place in different parts of the world are an authentic inhuman and degrading trait, often caused by deficiencies of criminal law, or by a lack of infrastructures and good planning,” he said. “In many cases they are the result of an arbitrary and merciless exercise of power over persons who have been deprived of freedom.”

Francis went on to decry maximum-security prisons as a “form of torture,” particularly for the “mental and physical” toll that isolation imposes on detainees. In addition, he bemoaned the practice of inflicting undue misery on criminals, be it in horrific work camps or in standard prisons.

“It is an authentic ‘surplus’ of pain that is added to the woes of detention,” he said. “In this way torture is used not only in illegal centers of detention or in modern concentration camps, but also in prisons, in rehabilitation centers for minors, in psychiatric hospitals, in police stations and in other institutions for detention or punishment.”

The pope also warned against using imprisonment as a cure-all for society’s ills.

“In the last decades there has been a growing conviction that through public punishment it is possible to solve different and disparate social problems, as if for different diseases one could prescribe the same medicine,” he said.

The pope’s words are sure to resonate with many in the United States, which currently has the largest prison population in the world, having grown by 790 percent since 1980. In addition, the number of U.S. prisoners with life sentences has more than quadrupled since 1984, with one in nine prisoners currently enduring life behind bars. Francis’ opposition to life sentences is also supported by Europe’s highest human rights court, which ruled last year that life in prison without parole is “incompatible with … human dignity.”