Panama prisoners build confession boxes for papal visit

Inmates at La Joya prison work in the production of 250 confessionals for the upcoming World Youth Day Panama, on November 13, 2018 in Panama City. (AFP)
Updated 18 November 2018
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Panama prisoners build confession boxes for papal visit

  • The 9,700 inmates packed into La Joya is double the prison's capacity

PACORA, Panama: Amid swirling sawdust and the smell of fresh paint, the inmates of a grim Panamanian prison are diligently preparing for the upcoming visit of Pope Francis, hoping for forgiveness and praying for freedom.
The sound of nails being deftly hammered into wood mingles with music in the makeshift workshop of the overcrowded La Joya prison, northeast of Panama City.
Around 30 inmates are busy making confession boxes that will be used by pilgrims to confess their sins to priests during the pope’s January 22-27 visit to mark the Catholic World Youth Day festival.
A painting on one of the walls at the entrance to La Joya seems oddly prophetic: “God impacts your life, let yourself be led to him.”
Inmates like Felix Salinas hold out hope that a papal visit will impact their lives in some concrete way.
“I would ask him to give me a chance. A pardon at least. Because that is what we all want here,” said Salinas, a 50-year-old driver locked up here since 2015.
Justino Hernandez, 62 and a devout Catholic, is particularly looking forward to the papal visit, the first to the Central American country since the late John Paul II made the trip in 1983.
“The most important thing is to tell him that we are all entitled to a second chance and to freedom, that he gives us the chance to get out of this place,” he said.
Hernandez is prepared to ask the pope’s forgiveness “as many times as he wants.”
The pope’s agenda has yet to be finalized, and though he has visited prisons before, there has been no suggestion that he will visit the inmates of La Joya.
The 9,700 inmates packed into La Joya is double the prison’s capacity. Conditions here have been condemned by human rights organizations.
From 8:00 am to 4:00 pm, the prisoners cut out traced designs from wood panels, assemble crosses and then sand, paint and upholster the confessionals, under an instructor’s watchful eye.
It’s unpaid work, but most detainees hope their reward will come from Francis noticing their handiwork, or at least being told about it, and then pardon them — failing that, a papal blessing.

The brightly painted confessional booths will be set up in a so-called “Park of Forgiveness,” an area of the capital’s Omar Park that will be dedicated to WYD activities.
Most of the detainees have never done this kind of work before but it has been such a success that the prison has received orders to make 70 information kiosks and to prepare food bags for pilgrims.
Sharon Diaz, deputy head of the Penitentiary system, told AFP that the project — rewarded by a day’s deduction from inmates’ sentences for every two days worked — has surpassed expectations.
“They have taken on this task not only in a personal way but in a spiritual way too, and the surprising thing about this initiative is that these are people deprived of freedom who don’t profess the Catholic faith, and yet have still been enthusiastic,” said Diaz.
The project’s supervisor Luis Vega said “there are no complications with them. They are very cooperative.”
Authorities expect hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, most of them from Latin America, to visit Panama for World Youth Day.
For one of the prisoners, Jesus Argueles, their project is a “grain of salt” in “something great worldwide, that’s going to be happening here in Panama.”
“I feel that all this is a message from God,” said inmate Melis Guerrero over the hiss of paint sprayers.
“I have heard from many of them that they have hopes the pope will go to them, bless them, look at them and recognize that they made an effort to do this work,” said Diaz.
“They want to show their forgiveness and repentance to the pope.”


Australia’s conservative coalition wins surprise 3rd term

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media as he arrives at the Horizon Church in Sutherland in Sydney, Australia, May 19, 2019. (REUTERS)
Updated 19 May 2019
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Australia’s conservative coalition wins surprise 3rd term

  • Govt claims miraculous result, but unclear if can form majority
  • Morrison govt polls strongly in Queensland state

CANBERRA, Australia: Australia’s ruling conservative coalition won a surprise victory in the country’s general election on Saturday, defying opinion polls that had tipped the center-left opposition party to oust it from power and promising an end to the revolving door of national leaders.
“I have always believed in miracles,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told a jubilant Sydney crowd.
He compared his Liberal Party’s victory for a third three-year term to the births of his daughters, Abbey, 11, and Lily, 9, who were conceived naturally after 14 years of in vitro fertilization had failed. His wife, Jenny Morrison, suffered endometriosis.
“I’m standing with the three biggest miracles in my life here tonight, and tonight we’ve been delivered another one,” he said, embraced by his wife and daughters.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten had earlier conceded defeat as the coalition came close to a majority in the 151-seat House of Representatives, where parties need a majority to form a government. Vote counting was to continue on Sunday.
“I’m disappointed for people who depend upon Labor, but I’m glad that we argued what was right, not what was easy,” Shorten told his supporters.
Shorten would have become Australia’s sixth prime minister in as many years. He said he would no longer lead Labor after six years at the helm.
The tight race raised the prospect of the coalition forming a minority government. The conservatives became a rare minority government after they dumped Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister for Morrison in an internal power struggle last August. The government then lost two seats and its single-seat majority as part of the blood-letting that followed.
An unpopular single-term Labor government that was voted out in 2013 had been the only previous minority government since World War II.
Opinion polls prior to Saturday’s election had suggested that the coalition would lose and that Morrison would have had one of the shortest tenures as prime minister in the 118-year history of the Australian federation.
Morrison had focused his campaigning on polling that showed while Labor was more popular than the government, the prime minister was more popular than Shorten.
There was so much public confidence of a Labor victory that Australian online bookmaker Sportsbet paid out 1.3 million Australian dollars ($900,000) to bettors who backed Labor two days before the election. Sportsbet said 70% of wagers had been placed on Labor at odds of $1.16.
Another betting agency, Ladbrokes, said it had accepted a record AU$1 million wager on Labor.
Shorten, who campaigned heavily on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, said Saturday morning that he was confident Labor would win, but Morrison would not be drawn on a prediction.
Morrison is the conservatives’ third prime minister since they were elected in 2013.
Tony Abbott, who became the first of those three prime ministers in the 2013 election, conceded defeat in the Sydney seat he has held since 1994.
Polling suggests climate change was a major issue in that seat for voters, who instead elected an independent candidate, Zali Steggall. As prime minister in 2014, Abbott repealed a carbon tax introduced by a Labor government. Abbott was replaced by Turnbull the next year because of poor opinion polling, but he remained a government lawmaker.
A maverick senator who blamed the slaughter of 51 worshippers in two New Zealand mosques on the country’s immigration policies also lost his bid for election.
Fraser Anning was the target of widespread condemnation for railing against Muslim immigration within hours of the mass shootings in the New Zealand city of Christchurch in March. He faced more criticism later for physically striking a teenage protester who cracked a raw egg on his head and was censured by the Senate.
Senior Labor lawmaker Chris Bowen said his party may have suffered from what he conceded was an unusual strategy of pushing a detailed policy agenda through the election campaign.
Morrison began the day Saturday by campaigning in the island state of Tasmania, where the Liberals appeared to have gained two Labor-held seats. He then flew 900 kilometers (560 miles) home to Sydney to vote and to campaign in Sydney seats.
Shorten campaigned hard on more ambitious targets to reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The government has committed Australia to reduce its emissions by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2030. Labor has promised a 45% reduction in the same time frame.
Shorten, a 52-year-old former labor union leader, has also promised a range of reforms, including the government paying all of a patients’ costs for cancer treatment and a reduction of tax breaks for landlords.
Morrison, a former tourism marketer, promised lower taxes and better economic management than Labor.
Both major parties promised that whoever won the election would remain prime minister until he next faces the voters’ judgment. The parties have changed their rules to make the process of lawmakers replacing a prime minister more difficult.
During Labor’s last six years in office, the party replaced Prime Minister Kevin Rudd with his deputy Julia Gillard, then dumped her for Rudd.