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.”


UN Assembly adopts refugee pact, without US and Hungary

Updated 30 min 34 sec ago
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UN Assembly adopts refugee pact, without US and Hungary

  • The refugee pact was approved by 181 countries
  • Only two voted no — the US and Hungary. Three others abstained — the Dominican Republic, Eritrea and Libya

UNITED NATIONS: The UN General Assembly on Monday adopted by a wide majority a Global Compact on Refugees aimed at improving efforts to manage large refugee movements — but without the support of the United States and Hungary.
The refugee pact, which did not provoke the controversy unleashed over a similar pact on migration, was approved by 181 countries.
Only two voted no — the US and Hungary. Three others abstained — the Dominican Republic, Eritrea and Libya.
Much like the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration — the refugee pact is not legally binding.
The two global agreements stem from the so-called New York Declaration adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly in September 2016, with the goal of better handling migrant and refugee flows worldwide.
The compact — written under the auspices of the Geneva-based UN refugee agency (UNHCR) — hopes to ensure an adequate international response to large-scale refugee movements and extended displacement of refugees.
General Assembly President Maria Fernanda Espinosa told AFP the pact would help “strengthen the assistance to and protection of the 25 million refugees globally” and was based on burden — and responsibility-sharing.
“Refugee-hosting countries continue to show extraordinary levels of generosity and commitment to refugee protection,” said Espinosa, who is from Ecuador.
“It’s a known fact that low and middle-income countries host over 85 percent of all refugees. I believe that we must support the communities and states that host refugees.”
In voting no, Hungary said no new agreement was needed. The US said recently that it backed most of the refugee pact, but not the part aimed at limiting detentions of asylum seekers.
Ahead of Monday’s vote, two countries facing massive population flight addressed the assembly.
Syria said the debate should not be politicized and asked the UNHCR to do more to help Syrian refugees return to their war-wracked country.
Crisis-hit Venezuela, which has seen massive flight as its economic quagmire has deepened, urged the assembly to ensure that the new pact did not become a way for other countries to intervene in internal matters.
The document has four key objectives: ease pressure on refugee-hosting nations; improve refugee self-reliance; expand access to third countries for refugees via resettlement; and, support conditions for refugees to go home.
The compact is meant to set up a framework; national and regional solutions are supported, and it discusses financing and possible partnerships, as well as data sharing among nations.
It also includes systems to monitor progress, including a Global Refugee Forum held at ministerial level every four years.
Unlike the talks on the migration pact, the United States remained in the negotiations for the refugee pact.
The final text of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Legal Migration was agreed on in July, and it is to be formally ratified by the General Assembly on Wednesday.
Since July, a number of countries have either quit the pact or expressed serious reservations, including Hungary, Australia, Israel, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Latvia and Italy.
In Belgium, the migration pact sparked the collapse of the country’s coalition government.
About 165 countries reaffirmed their commitment to the migration pact earlier this month in Morocco.