Will the Pope Shame City Hall Into Fixing Its Atrocious Prison Problem?

Philadelphia's jails are jam-packed, and Francis plans to check them out.

The Cool Pope is visiting Philadelphia’s Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility during his trip to the city this fall, the Vatican announced Tuesday.

When Pope Francis tours the jail, he’ll find a prison system that has been sued over its crammed conditions almost non-stop for the past 45 years. In fact, a judge ordered the city to build CFCF in the nineties in order to alleviate overcrowding.

Today, the city’s prison system houses nearly 8,200 inmates — about 1,700 more than it was built to hold. At CFCF, 400 to 500 prisoners live in “triple cells,” which are jam-packed, three-man cells that are intended to hold only one or two people.

Will city officials allow the Pope to see the prison’s lackluster conditions? Will he pop into a triple cell? Or will his impending visit pressure the city to finally get its stuffed jails under control?

We asked Mark McDonald, a spokesman for Mayor Michael Nutter, if there are plans to change the setup of CFCF or move inmates to other jails in the city’s system during the Pope’s visit.

“There are no plans to change the ‘setup’ at the prison. The Pope will see the facility as it is. He will visit with a group of inmates and also speak to a group of staffers,” he said, adding, “No, inmates will not be moved from CFCF.”

There’s a good chance that this might light a fire under the city to cut down on the prison population, though.

Throughout Nutter’s tenure, the city has taken several steps to reduce the number of inmates in the city’s jails — and, at times, has been very successful. In early 2011, the prison system’s population fell to 7,700, a recent low. Still, it has never reached that magic number — 6,500, which is the maximum number of inmates that the system was constructed to hold — under Nutter.

The prison population has often fallen under Nutter shortly after the city has been sued due to overcrowding. Likewise, it has risen after such lawsuits were put on hold. Check out this infographic to see the correlation for yourself. Won’t the upcoming visit by Pope Francis — and all of the international media attention that will come with it — give the city an even bigger incentive to cut down on overcrowding?

Civil rights attorney David Rudovsky, who has sued the city several times over prison overcrowding, thinks it might.

“I would say that litigation has certainly been helpful in controlling the population, even though it continues to be far too high,” he said. “Perhaps papal intervention will cause the city even more concern and lead to a responsible reduction in the population.”

On the other hand, maybe it won’t. Nutter is a lame duck who will be only three months away from leaving office when Pope Francis comes to Philly.

It’s also noteworthy that Pope Francis is touring CFCF, which opened in 1995 and is one of the city’s newest prison facilities, as opposed to, say, the House of Correction, which is nearly 150 years old and lacks air conditioning.