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Rally against incarceration in Mass. held ahead of pope trip

Call for justice, compassion in pope’s name

Members of the Jobs Not Jails Coalition held a rally at the Suffolk County House of Correction at South Bay.
Members of the Jobs Not Jails Coalition held a rally at the Suffolk County House of Correction at South Bay.(Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)

Two days ahead of the pope's scheduled visit to a correctional facility in Philadelphia, about 40 community activists held a rally at the Suffolk County House of Correction at South Bay on Friday, donning Pope Francis T-shirts and espousing his message of social justice and compassion.

"Jobs not jail!" they chanted as some inmates watched through their cell windows, hands pressed between the metal bars.

The protesters belong to the Jobs Not Jails coalition, a network of faith-based organizations working to reform a criminal-justice system they say is unjust and incarcerates too many.

On Friday, the group held a vigil at the South Bay detention center to pray for all incarcerated persons, and for the 25 coalition members planning to travel to Philadelphia to see Francis in person.

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The pontiff "brings a message of hope for people in custody and immigrants," said Maria Riberio, a Brockton resident who is one of the 25 pilgrims heading to Philadelphia.

Her son, Michael, is incarcerated at MCI-Shirley.

"We want to pray because some people [in prison] are innocent, but we want to pray for everybody," Riberio said.

During the rally, inmates waved to the crowd and banged on windows in time with the chanting supporters. Some members of the coalition delighted at the sight, but for Maria Mullane of Salem, it was disconcerting.

She removed herself from the chanting group and cried in a nearby stairway.

"I think of the families," Mullane said, through a translator. "I think of my daughter and my nephew."

But at the mention of Pope Francis, her countenance improved.

"He is hope," Mullane said, smiling.

In a May visit to Argentina, Pope Francis expressed sympathy for prisoners, telling a South American newspaper that "none of us can be sure that we would never commit a crime, something for which we'd be put in prison."

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The pope celebrated Holy Thursday Mass in April by washing the feet of 12 prisoners. And on Sunday, he is scheduled to visit the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia.

"He is a people's pope, and he's speaking the word of God," said Pierre Osias, another member of the group planning to go to Philadelphia.

During the vigil's 30-minute program, religious and community activists spoke to the cheering crowd through a megaphone.

The recurring themes: increasing employment opportunities, eliminating mandatory-minimum prison sentences, and ensuring that elected officials represent the desires of their communities.

The Massachusetts Communities Action Network, an umbrella group on the Jobs Not Jails steering committee, is lobbying for the Legislature to pass the Justice Reinvestment Act , said Lew Finfer, one of its directors. The bill, sponsored by Democratic legislators Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz of Boston and Representative Mary S. Keefe of Worcester, would repeal mandatory-minimum sentences for drug offenders, reform the bail process, and provide job training programs for at-risk populations.

According to the Sentencing Project, a national advocacy organization, there are 2.2 million incarcerated Americans across the country and more than 22,000 in Massachusetts. According to data from last year, the state's prison population has multiplied almost ninefold since 1988.

"Especially in communities of color, we see members going to jail due to lack of resources, lack of jobs, and because of the color of their skin," said Isabel Lopez, also of Brockton. "And there is a lot of division when people who don't represent you start arresting you."

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Lopez, who also will travel to Philadelphia, said everyone can learn from the pontiff.

"Pope Francis brings an important message of love and compassion, and when you don't have that, you're missing a lot," she said. "We need that, especially from people in power."

The Jobs Not Jails contingent is planning to take a large sign — reading "Massachusetts family, thank you Pope Francis for lifting up the humanity of all people. #jobsnotjails" — to display at the gathering in Philadelphia.

Three ministers spoke at Friday's vigil, but only one was Roman Catholic, the Rev. Gerry Souza, the parochial vicar for a cluster of South Boston churches.

In his speech, Souza called for solidarity and activism among all Massachusetts residents.

"Inequality is the root of all social ills," Souza said, quoting Pope Francis.

"Let us stand with those who stand apart, let's give a voice to those who are voiceless, and let us send our pilgrims to be with Pope Francis," he said to applause.

At that moment, more hands appeared between the bars of South Bay detention center's 674 cells.

Before the rally, as the coalition had gathered outside to shout encouraging messages to inmates, a small piece of white paper appeared on the fourth floor.

"#1402853. Write me."


Astead W. Herndon can be reached at astead.herndon@ globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWH.