Philly inmates make carved chair for Pope Francis

Sealer is applied to a cross before it is placed atop the chair. Victims' families hope to have an audience with the pope in addition to his meeting with prisoners.
Sealer is applied to a cross before it is placed atop the chair. Victims' families hope to have an audience with the pope in addition to his meeting with prisoners.
Posted: August 26, 2015

Evan Davis sanded the back of a large walnut throne, scrubbing in the direction of the grain, to smooth the seat Pope Francis will sit on when he visits next month.

In a carpentry shop at the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center (PICC), Davis and about a dozen other inmates have been working for four weeks on the chair, nearly six feet high.

"At first I thought it was a little strange, honestly, like, why's he coming to a prison?" Davis, 26, of West Philadelphia, said. "But then you realize, he's coming to the prison basically to show people everybody in jail is not a criminal. And we need hope now just as much as anybody."

Davis, the father of two young girls, has been in the prison system 21/2 years. He's awaiting a retrial on third-degree murder charges after a mistrial in March, he said.

On Monday, he joined other inmates working in the PHILACOR program, and discussed preparations for Francis' visit to the neighboring Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility - named in honor of Warden Patrick N. Curran and Deputy Warden Robert F. Fromhold, who were murdered at Holmesburg Prison in 1973. A retired corrections officer at Curran-Fromhold said in an interview Monday he hoped the pope also makes time to meet with families of murder victims.

PHILACOR is one of several vocational programs to help inmates learn skills that can be transferred to the community after their release. Five inmates carved the chair, and several others are working on upholstery and decoration.

Many of the workers will be in the audience of 100 inmates and their families when Francis visits Curran-Fromhold on Sept. 27, the morning of the day of the afternoon papal Mass.

"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 said he knows he and other inmates had "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."

Anthony Newman, assistant director of PHILACOR, designed the chair. He picked walnut because it's an American wood, added papal crosses - with three bars - to each side of the chair, and designed a Jesuit emblem to decorate the area near the headrest.

Karen Bryant, the warden at PICC, said many of the inmates who will meet Francis are Catholic. She said prison officials will also consider behavior and criminal records in determining who sees the pope. "We'll look at the severity of the charge to ensure safety for all," she said.

Bryant said Francis could not have picked a population more in need of his message.

"Prisons are where you can find people a lot of times at their lowest point," he said, "and the pope to me, he's looking for hope, he's trying to infuse hope into the world, and if people who are at their lowest points here, if he can get them to hope to improve themselves, it'll be a benefit to the community."

Monday's event, in which about a dozen members of the media filed into the prison to interview the inmates, came with some humorous moments.

Edgar Williams of West Philadelphia stopped working at one point when a large rectangular device caught his eye, "What's that?"

"That's an iPhone!," Green said.

"I've been in here a while,' Williams said. "They didn't look like that."

Williams said that while he is not Catholic, 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.

In addition to the chair, the inmates will give the pope a basket of fruit from the prison orchard and a plaque engraved in the textile shop.

Deputy Warden Gerald May, a lector at his Catholic parish, had the idea for the plaque.

It's inscribed with an excerpt from Matthew 25:35-40:

"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."

For Wilfredo Rojas - who spent 25 years as a corrections officer at Curran-Fromhold - the pope's visit is bittersweet.

Rojas, now retired, worked in the Office of Community Outreach at the prison, helping inmates' families navigate the system. He also helped launch several reentry programs still in effect today, he said.

Rojas is glad to see the pope visiting an often-forgotten population, but since his 34-year-old son, Alejandro Rojas-Garcia, was slain in January, he's joined the devastatingly large community of families of murder victims. He's sent dozens of letters to the Vatican, the mayor, and people at the World Meeting of Families, hoping to get a meeting with Francis.

"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."

His ex-wife, Aleida Garcia, said a meeting with victims' families would also emphasize the city's violent-crime problem.

"They're two separate issues, but people that are convicted, you can still go visit them. I go to the cemetery for Mother's Day," she said. "We want people to understand, these are not just numbers, they're people, they're lives."


jterruso@phillynews.com

215-854-5506@juliaterruso

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|