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The pope’s chair made in Philadelphia prison workshop

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When Pope Francis visits the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility as part of his trip to Philadelphia, he will sit in a chair custom-made by inmates.

Alexander Davis is part of the prison team which built the pope’s chair.

“It gives you joy to know that you are making something for someone so big that is coming to the city,” Davis said. “And that everybody is going to get a chance to see — and it’s the craft that we actually learn in here.”


Inmate Hakim Burke varnishes the crosses for Pope Francis’ chair at Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The man who designed the chair is Anthony Newman, an assistant director at Philcor,the prison’s furniture company. He describes it as a one-of-a-kind piece handmade by men who are currently serving time.

“This chair is made out of American walnut; it has an oil-based stain. It’s approximately 5 feet 10 inches. It has two crosses to the left and right on the top of the chair. It’s called a pope’s cross,” he said. “It has his emblem in the center of the chair which will be right above his head as he sits down.”

The prison shop makes everything from office furniture to the podium used by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter during news conferences.


Chair Designer Anthony Newman instructs an inmate on where to place one of the chair’s crosses. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Prisons Commissioner Lou Giorla said the training teaches more than just sawing, sanding and staining. It gives inmates skills they can put to work after incarceration. It’s part of a vocational education system that teaches those behind bars everything from cooking in a commercial kitchen to working in a dry cleaning plant.

Giorla said the training is designed to instill a work ethic, giving the men job-readiness skills and teaching them how to interact with a supervisor or co-worker during a day’s work. For many of the offenders who come through the doors of the city’s jails, Girola said, “They’ve never had a job so just instilling those simple skills is a first goal.”

The prison system doesn’t track how many of those who are taught these skills actually put it to use after re-entering society. But Mayor Michael Nutter has established the Office of Reintegration Services (RISE), which is designed to cut down on recidivism by helping those who leave the prison system find a job, and reducing the temptation to go back to a life of crime.

Once the pope’s visit is complete, the chair will be shipped to the Vatican — and the prisoners hope it will be the first step to their new life with a good job.

Inmates stand beside the pope’s chair at the prison workshop.  (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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