Quakers have had a deeply felt concern about prison reform ever since the beginning of Quakerism in the 17th century, when over 13,000 Quakers were imprisoned because of their religious practices and views. Early Quakers not only knew first-hand the horrors of the prison system, they were also inspired by these powerful words of Jesus: “No greater love has anyone than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friend” (15:13).
Taking these words to heart, and empowered by the Spirit of Truth, 153 Quakers signed a petition to the King asking to take the place of Friends who had been incarcerated in foul dungeons—a virtual death sentence. How many of us today would be willing to trade place with the detainees in Guantanamo?
One of the distinctive testimonies of Friends has been our dedication to prison reform. William Penn, one of the founders of Quakerism, abolished the death penalty for all crimes except murder in his colony and favored rehabilitation over punishment—radical reforms for his day. In the 18th century John Bellars was one of the first to advocate for the complete abolition of the death penalty and other radical prison reforms. Elizabeth Fry was such a major figure in the prison reform movement of the 19th century that she appears on the five-pound note. In the 20th century the British Quaker David Wills (1903-1980) “was a centrally important figure in the development of what is regarded as being one of the most just and humane types of holding regime. In the 1930s and 40s he developed the concept of therapeutic communities in Hawkspur Camp and the Barns Hostel School, based on principles of relationships and self-learning.” See http://www.quakersintheworld.org/quakers-in-action/43
One of the leading Quaker advocates for prison reform in the United States today is Laura Magnani, long-term staff member in the American Friends Service Committee. For over 40 years she has dedicated her life to prison reform, visiting inmates and advocating on their behalf. She has also written articles and books, including Beyond Prisons: A New Interfaith Paradigm for Our Failed Prison System (2009).
That’s why the Peace and Social Order Committee of Pacific Yearly Meeting took Laura very seriously when she came to our annual session asking for the clerk to sign onto a letter to Governor Brown sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee and by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. This letter supports the demands of hunger strikers in the California prison system calling for such things as decent food, humane treatment, and an end to solitary confinement. See http://www.nrcat.org/about-us/nrcat-press-releases
Because the Yearly Meeting had approved a minute in 2011 supporting the work of NRCAT, opposing torture, and expressing our concern for those in long-term confinement, it seemed like a “no-brainer” that the clerk of Yearly Meeting should sign onto a letter endorsed by the AFSC and over 1000 clergy and religious leaders.
Sad to say, this never happened. We weren’t given an opportunity even to raise this issue among Friends because some Friends questioned whether the Yearly Meeting had the authority to speak out on social issues (a radical departure from our practice).
As you can imagine, Laura was deeply hurt and disappointed, and justifiably so. We not only let her down, we also showed how far we have strayed from the prophetic spirit that has animated Friends since our earliest days.
In meeting for worship, Laura asked us to fast on behalf of the hunger strikers. She also asked for our prayers as she went to advocate on behalf of inmates in our prison system that the State Supreme Court says are being subjected to “cruel and unusual punishment” because of overcrowding.
I don’t know how many Friends responded to her request, but I was deeply moved. I had been fasting for prison inmates and Guantanamo detainees during the month of Ramdan, so I fasted Muslim-style on Friday, the second-to-last day of our annual session. I refrained from drinking liquids or eating during the daylight hours. It was hard, but I know it brought me closer to God and to the condition of those who were “thirsting and hungering for justice” in our prison system. When the clerk decided we would not consider the letter to the Governor, as Laura requested, I was so heart-broken I left the session. I was joined by several Friends who sat and worshipped with me. I waited and listened in silence as they shared their hearts with me, and I felt their love and the healing presence of Spirit. I was deeply grateful to Friends who joined me in worship. They were Friends indeed!
Later I went to the dining hall and looked out at the amazing beauty of the Salinas valley, seen from the top of Mt Madonna. I was not only dazzled by the beauty of this sacred place, I was also aware that I am white, privileged and wealthy enough to afford to go to places like this, like many attendees of our Quaker gathering. It was as if we were on a floating island above the clouds. But then I remembered the floating island of Laputa, described satirically by Swift. Laputans were intellectuals who spent their days wrapped in contemplation, living in the clouds, and unaware of the suffering and injustice that took place on earth (many of which were perpetrated by them). As I looked at the breath-taking beauty surrounding me, I heard a “still, small voice” saying: “Enjoy my creation, rejoice and be happy, but don’t forget those who are locked up in solitary confinement. They never get to see the sky or such scenes of beauty. And they are your brothers and sisters.”
When I heard this message, I wept and thanked God for giving me eyes to see and a heart to feel, and also a voice to speak out.
I also wept for those who are so caught up in Quaker process and notions that they cannot see, and cannot feel. I remembered what Albert Einstein once wrote of Quakers at a commencement at Swarthmore in 1938:
“This Society is an admirable testimony against the assertion that every organization by its very nature kills the spirit which has called it to life.”
Sadly, I see Friends killing the spirit which called us to life, and is still calling us to life, if we are willing to listen and be open. My prayers is that we allow God to release us from what William Blake called “mind-forged manacles” so we can hear and feel and respond to the cries of the oppressed and the “still, small voice” within us.
If you want to make a difference, write to the Governor or go to the NRCAT website and express your solidarity with those who are in prison system.