Pope Benedict XVI visited one of Italy's biggest prisons on Sunday in Rome for an emotional Christmas observance, as the government prepares measures aimed at easing the problem of overcrowding.
"This visit is a public gesture to remind our fellow citizens and our government that there are major problems and difficulties in Italian prisons," the pope said during a question-and-answer session with detainees.
"I know that overcrowding and degradation in prisons can make detention even more bitter," he said, calling on the government to ensure that conditions are improved "so that prisoners never have to serve a double sentence."
The Rebibbia prison on the outskirts of Rome visited by the pope has 1,740 detainees -- 500 more than its capacity -- a situation repeated across Italy where there around 68,000 detainees for 44,385 places.
More than 60 prisoners have committed suicide so far this year.
Asked by one prisoner about negative views about HIV-positive prisoners, the pope answered: "We have to tolerate people talking about us in a fierce way. Some people speak fiercely about the pope, but we still carry on."
The pope was met at Rebibbia by Justice Minister Paola Severino, who said the pope's visit was "a very happy coincidence" since she has stressed that decreasing the prison population is her top priority.
"I think this visit ... will give a very important signal of the presence in our hearts, our spirit and our minds of the prison problem as one of the fundamental problems of our life and our society," she said.
Severino, who joined Prime Minister Mario Monti's cabinet last month, said there was "a situation of exceptional difficulty and unease" in prisons, and incarceration should be only "a really exceptional measure."
The measures proposed by the government include shortening the maximum length of time someone can be held before indictment to 48 hours from 96 hours and using police stations instead of jails for short custodies.
Severino has also talked about the possibility of an amnesty.
Benedict recited a prayer with prisoners, accepted gifts from them and blessed a cypress tree that he has donated for the prison yard.
He has visited several jails in Italy since becoming pope in 2005 and is far from being the first pontiff to visit a jail, starting with a historic visit by John XXIII to Rome's Regina Coeli prison on December 26, 1958.
Benedict's predecessor John Paul II visited Italian prisons 12 times including a visit to Rebibbia on December 27, 1983, when he met with the Turkish militant Ali Agca who had tried to assassinate him two years earlier.