Portuguese prisoners build confessionals ahead of Pope's visit

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By Catarina Demony and Miguel Pereira

PORTO - Fraudster Tiago Espanhol has been behind bars for a little over two years. He has 2-1/2 more years before release but he says building confessionals for Pope Francis' visit to Portugal this summer is speeding up time.

"We pass our time and it's good for us," the 38-year-old said as he gave the final touches to a chair at the prison's carpentry workshop. "Working is better for us - at least to see if we can go home as soon as possible."

Lisbon will host the World Youth Day from Aug. 1-6, an international festival bringing together the pope and hundreds of thousands of young Catholics from across the globe.

As part of the event, 150 confessionals built by inmates at three Portuguese prisons are set to be installed at the "Park of Forgiveness", a space for the faithful to confess their sins.

Espanhol, an evangelical Christian who is at Porto's Prison Establishment (EP) in northern Portugal, hopes his children can visit the park to see his work.

Organisers said involving the prisoners could help them reintegrate into society when they are released from jail.

Prisoners such as Espanhol also hope building the confessionals can reduce their jail time.

Manuel Dias, who has been in jail for two months awaiting his final sentencing, said it was easier to spend the day working on the wooden confessionals than stuck in his cell.

"Inside (prison), you stand still," said the 55-year-old. "Time doesn't go by fast."

Paulo Teixeira, coordinator of the prison's carpentry workshop, said one of the benefits of working on the confessionals was the salary of 5 euros ($5.50) per day, above the average daily wage inmates receive doing other jobs.

Jose Julio, director of Porto's EP, said that most of the work done by inmates was related to the jail's maintenance, such as cleaning or meal preparation.

According to the European Prison Observatory, employment and vocational training opportunities for inmates are insufficient in Portugal, where it notes a "serious overcrowding problem" in the prisons.

Investing in modernising workshops and establishing further agreements with private companies willing to recruit inmates could be part of the solution for them to gain extra skills for life after prison and make more cash, said Julio, standing next to one of the built confessionals.

The prison director said it was "important for people to know that positive things are also done inside prisons".

($1 = 0.9091 euros)

(Reporting by Catarina Demony, Miguel Pereira and Pedro Nunes; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

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