Pope visits youth jail in Panama, urges second chance for all inmates

PANAMA CITY, Jan 25 - Pope Francis visited a juvenile jail in Panama on Friday to comfort young people who could not leave to attend a global gathering of Catholic youth, and the pontiff urged society to give offenders everywhere a second chance.

Francis, 82, traveled by car to the town of Pacora, east of Panama City, for a prayer service with the 200 juvenile inmates at the institution, considered a model one for Latin America.

The young inmates are required to take vocational training courses and are helped by a team of social workers, psychologists and teachers.

Francis, a strong supporter of rehabilitation of inmates and an opponent of life imprisonment, has visited many prisons in Italy and on his overseas trips.

He has called for a worldwide ban on the death penalty and under his watch last year the Catholic Church formally changed its teaching to declare capital punishment inadmissible in any circumstance.

"Friends, each of us is much more than our labels," Francis told the young inmates, urging them to embark on a path of change and appealing to society to accept them.

"A society grows sick when it is unable to celebrate change in its sons and daughters. A community grows sick when it lives off relentless, negative and heartless complaining," said the pope, who heard the confessions of five inmates during the visit.

"But a society is fruitful when it is able to generate processes of inclusion and integration, of caring and trying to create opportunities and alternatives that can offer new possibilities to the young, to build a future through community, education and employment," he said.

One out of every three criminals in Latin America are repeat offenders and the majority commit crimes that are more serious than those for which they were first jailed, according to a study by the Inter-American Development Bank.

Most jails in Latin America are overcrowded, with little state control and where drugs, sex and weapons are commercialized, the study said.

Francis is on a six-day trip to Panama centered on the Roman Catholic Church's World Youth Day celebrations.

Held in a different city about every three years, it has been dubbed the "Catholic Woodstock," a jamboree where young people celebrate their faith and discuss social issues.

Francis presided at the opening ceremony before more than 100,000 people on Thursday night and leads a "Via Crucis" (Way of the Cross) service with the young people later on Friday.

So far, he has also delved into social issues, urging Latin America's leaders on Thursday to shun corruption and tackle gang violence, drug trafficking and the killing of women, which he said had become a "plague" in his native continent.

Francis has also addressed migration, saying more had to be done to overcome fears and suspicions because migrants were merely seeking a better life for themselves and their families.