Prisons rank high on the list of institutions that Quakers want to eliminate, very close to war. The most recent statement of legislative priorities by the Friends Committee on National Legislation (possibly the most widely-discerned document in the Quaker world) includes advocating for a system that “eliminates mass incarceration and promotes law-enforcement that is community-oriented and demilitarized.” The Board of the American Friends Service Committee, after producing an extensive background paper, took the position – back in 1978 – that it supports the abolition of prisons. Clearly, Quakers by and large want to live in that Light and Love that takes away the occasion of all prisons – along with jails, detention centers, and other places where people are held in cages.
Typically, historical descriptions of Quakers and prisons begin with the imprisonment of the earliest Friends for their religious beliefs. (See, for example: www.fcnl.org/updates/2016-09/quakers-know-prisons-inside-out) Next come stories of Elizabeth Fry, who organized self-help projects among women in Newgate Prison in the early 1800s. These histories then receive “honesty points” if they admit that a Quaker (Benjamin Rush) invented the idea of solitary confinement, thinking that quiet spaces would help prisoners open to the Divine. Ending solitary confinement is now a common legislative goal among Friends. Finally, histories of Quakers and prisons will include the long parade, over the centuries, of Friends who spent time in prison for acts of conscience, including Vietnam-era figures like AFSC member Bob Eaton. (Listen to Bob tell his story here: tinyurl.com/AFSC-incarceration)
The spiritual thread that unites Quaker attention on prisons is the recognition of “that of God” in everyone, in contrast to mainstream views that demonize criminals by way of the media and common political discourse. Laura Magnani, a long-time Quaker prison activist from California, calls this “the humanitarian leap.” This leap begins simply through contact with people who are incarcerated – by writing letters, sending books, and (before COVID) visiting. These acts can then extend to include accompaniment and advocacy for people on Death Row, as well as steadfast pressure to end the death penalty. Quakers teach in prisons and advocate for humane conditions there, ones that offer full opportunities for learning and change. Quakers worship in prisons. Possibly the most widely adopted route for Quakers into prisons is the Alternatives to Violence Project, which has helped thousands of people develop new skills for transforming conflicts.
Quakers chip away at the carceral system from the outside, too. They take steps to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. They advocate for and work in social programs that offer alternatives to policing. Many have joined the Restorative Justice movement, advocating for school districts to adopt restorative justice practices and for courts to adopt “diversion, reconciliation, and relationship-healing” options for sentencing. Quakers also work more broadly for sentencing reforms, striving to shatter links in the racist chains forged by the “War on Drugs.” Finally, in the harsh world that citizens face when they exit incarceration, Quakers are working for voting rights, employment rights, and housing rights.
It seems strange to me that this wide range of important efforts has begun to generate conflicts and divisions among Friends. The word “abolition” seems to be the trigger. For some Friends, “abolition” is shorthand for a no-brainer position that the carceral state resides in the same moral category as war. For others, “abolition” is a red flag that undermines coalition-building. For me, while I embrace abolition as a goal, I avoid credentialing myself as a “Quaker abolitionist.” My Quaker beliefs compel me to do the work without the words.
I invite you all to join this work as well. We need alternatives to prison. ~~~
Susan Cozzens is a retired university professor who worshipped for many years in Atlanta before moving to the Northwest. She is currently clerk of Quaker Voice on Washington Public Policy and is a member of Eastside Friends Meeting in Bellevue, WA (NPYM).