Preamble I have been asked to reflect on ‘what working in prison as a Quaker means to me’. Technically, I am a Quaker chaplaincy volunteer – that is, I accompany the QPC (Quaker Prison Chaplain) along with two or three other volunteers to Meeting for Worship (MfW) at Usk Prison every three to four weeks. I have no official standing and no access to the prison without the QPC. Nor have I had any official training beyond a day’s ‘in-service’ organised by the Prison Service for volunteers, reading the QPC Handbook and whatever I pick up from other Quakers at relevant conferences. Apart from a day visit for volunteers to HMP Grendon Underwood, Usk is the only prison environment I have contact with. My experience is therefore limited and its validity maybe open to question. Moreover, Usk has a high number of long-stay men, mostly above fifty years old, and (so my QPC tells me) who are more than usually literate and articulate. The MfW is well-established, and is held in a pleasant room with access to tea-making facilities. Given the above circumstances, how do I experience being there (it’s not exactly ‘working’) as a Quaker?
I see the men detained there first and foremost as both a group and individuals of men rather than prisoners. I try not to use the term prisoners unless I have to. Yes, these are people who have been convicted of serious crimes which are frequently abusive, violent, dangerous, manipulative (I could go on but won’t) but they are still people and deserve to be treated as such. What governs my approach is a reminder to Quakers in our ‘handbook’ for daily living, “Quaker Faith and Practice”(“QF&P”) that “Each one of us is unique, precious, a child of God.” (Section 1.02.22) That means each and every one of them as well as you and me.
What I see when I go to Usk for MfW, is a group of men who come essentially for the peace and quiet – and that is just fine! They don’t have to believe in a god/spirit. They don’t have (or want) to follow a liturgy. They come for a half-hour of ‘respectful’ communal silence which, for them, is an important healing process in a noisy and disagreeable daily life. Enabling them to experience this is, for me, immensely important. So is the tea and chat time afterwards. Sometimes questions about Quakers and Quakerism come up and if they do, we talk around these in the whole group.
There is usually a chance to listen/talk one-to-one (or one-to-two), depending on numbers. It is understood, of course, that we don’t ask what they have done and they don’t say. Conversation ranges mostly round their hobbies/interests, sometimes on their jobs before being in prison and where they lived. I have learned (among other things) what life is like as a cellist in a major orchestra, about the electronics needed for the amplification system for a rock band, the history of the Great Western Railway and the syllabus for the OU degree course in philosophy. This is enjoyable! These men give me back as much as/ more than I can give them. I provide a listening ear and that seems to be mostly what is needed. I’m not sure that there is anything particularly Quakerly about this, except that we are enjoined (again in “QF&P”) to listen fully to others and to set aside personal prejudices and preoccupations.
PS As I finish writing this on the evening of 28 May 2011, some recent disturbing events in the news are running through my mind: where do blame, guilt and responsibility lie? I think it is impossible to say fairly. So at the moment I am uneasy about what I said earlier about our all being children of God. Am I naïve and ignorant about what makes people abuse, maim and kill? Probably…and yet…and yet… I wish to stand by what I have said. There is another route: that of restorative justice, of resolute conviction that there is a better way through/out for most prisoners than our current penal system.
Click Quaker Prison Chaplains or Meeting for Worship in Usk prison for more information.