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.”


’Pyongyang not the enemy’: South Koreans fed up with military service

Updated 1 min 6 sec ago
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’Pyongyang not the enemy’: South Koreans fed up with military service

  • US President Donald Trump is due to meet the North’s Kim Jong Un in Hanoi for a high-profile summit
  • The bulk of South Korea’s 600,000-strong military are conscripts, who are required to serve for some 20 months

SEOUL: Namgung Jin is anxious as he awaits the start of his military service in South Korea — almost two years in uniform guarding against the nuclear-armed neighbor to the north, with the two countries technically still at war.
But by the time the 19-year-old college student enlists on March 5, just five days after the upcoming US-North Korea summit, some analysts say the Korean War may have been officially declared over.
US President Donald Trump is due to meet the North’s Kim Jong Un in Hanoi for a high-profile summit to make progress on denuclearization of the peninsula, and a possible peace treaty.
If that happens, the future of the South’s controversial conscription system — which forces recruits to serve for months in often remote locations along the militarised border — will likely be up for debate.
For many young South Koreans like Namgung, it will be long overdue.
“I would definitely not want to serve if I were given an option,” he said, describing military service as a “waste of his youth” that delays him securing a job in South Korea’s hyper-competitive society.
Namgung, who was born in 1999 — almost 50 years after the Korean War ended with an armistice — said he rarely associated his service with the threat from the North.
“I’ve never considered North Korea as an enemy,” said Namgung, who studies computer science in Seoul. “I have no harsh feelings against the North. I just think life must be hard for those who live there.”
The bulk of South Korea’s 600,000-strong military are conscripts, who are required to serve for some 20 months.
Almost all able-bodied South Korean men are obliged to fulfil sentry duties, often in remote locations along the heavily militarised border.
Like Namgung, Han Sang-kyu — an 18-year-old who is scheduled to start his military service next year — said he was not hostile to Pyongyang.
“I’ve always considered North and South Koreans one people — I hope the two countries can unify one day,” he said.
Lim Tae-hoon, the director of the Center for Military Human Rights Korea in Seoul, said the Korean War and its legacy are still very much present in the South’s repressive military culture.
“The Korean War started on a Sunday, and a lot of (South) Korean soldiers were off base when the North’s tanks crossed the 38th parallel — the result was traumatic,” Lim told AFP.
“This is inseparable from why today’s soldiers in the South are confined to their bases all the time.”
Until this year conscripts were banned from using mobile phones for security reasons.
A rule that no more than 25 percent of troops can take holiday at the same time means recruits spend long periods of time cooped up together, which has contributed to bullying.
Some 60,000 South Korean recruits are thought to have died since 1953 from a range of causes including suicide, firearm accidents and medical malpractice.
None of them died on the battlefield.
Song Jun-seo, a 18-year-old student who will enlist this year or next, said he wants “some kind of compensation” should the conscription system be abolished after he finishes his service.
“I would be very angry. I don’t want to be the last one to suffer in the system,” he said.
But Kim Dong-yup, an analyst at Kyungnam University, said it was too early to talk about abolishing conscription — and that it will probably take a long time for the country to turn to a volunteer military system, even if the rapprochement with the North progresses.
“North Korea is not the only security threat to the Korean peninsula,” Kim told AFP, citing other neighboring countries and environmental disasters as potential problems.
Some men have taken extreme measures to avoid conscription, including 12 music students who stuffed themselves with protein powder before their medical exam, hoping to be declared too heavy for service.
Others have undergone unnecessary surgery and given themselves broken bones.
Song said he was disappointed by the result of his medical exam earlier this month — he was put in the top category, meaning he will have to serve in the armed forces without question.
“I have a chronic skin condition, so I’d been hoping to be placed in less physically taxing jobs, such as in local government,” Song told AFP.
He said he is scared to join the army because of what has happened to some soldiers while serving.
Song was horrified when he read about a soldier badly injured in 2016 after stepping on a land mine, another relic of the Korean war.
“At least if I were able do the service in local government, I wouldn’t have to worry about the possibility of losing my leg,” he said.