Crime and Justice
Quakers first became acquainted with prison conditions through their own imprisonment for their beliefs, in the early days of Quakerism in the 17th century. Many have been imprisoned for their beliefs since then, notably conscientious objectors. As a result they have always taken a wide interest in crime and justice. They have generally been at the forefront of penal reform, emphasising the need for rehabilitation rather than retribution. Quaker activity in criminal justice relates particularly to the testimonies to peace, community and equality.
One of the core functions of the state is to regulate the use of force, against those perceived to be its enemies, both from without and within. In the seventeenth century, Quakers developed a unique understanding of the state. The first generation of Friends experienced the power of government brought to bear on them as though they were enemies. These early Quaker prisoners and their kin suffered much at this time, and Margaret Fell soon established the Meeting for Sufferings to support them.
However, early Friends did not engage in counter-attacks or foment revolution. They recognised the power for good in government while offering criticism where they felt it was due. They saw a duty to scrutinise the workings of criminal justice as the use of force by government against its own citizens. Quakers all over the world have been commentators on criminal justice ever since. They base their beliefs and actions on individual conscience, and refuse to view the state as the ultimate arbiter of good and evil.
Many Quakers have worked for reform of the criminal justice systems of their day. Elizabeth Fry is probably the most famous. Friends believe that people have the potential to change, and so look for ways of rehabilitating offenders. They have campaigned for educational opportunities so that prisoners can find work when they are released. They have campaigned for improvements in prison conditions both because of the belief in treating people as equally as possible, and because they see better conditions as more conducive to rehabilitation. They have campaigned against the death penalty from the beginning and continue to do so where it still persists. They were and are active developers of parole systems. There have been many Quaker reformers.
In modern times Quakers are active in the development of restorative justice. This goes beyond concern for the prisoner to concern for the individuals and communities they have offended against, and harmed in some way. Restorative justice approaches involve ways of repairing the harm that has been done, at least in part – for example by telling the truth about what happened, or some form of community service. there are many examples of restorative jusitce in practice.
Some Quakers have been in positions where they have been able to have a direct effect on prison regimes. The first was William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania (1682). He had much personal experience of imprisonment on which to draw. In his first constitution for Pennsylvania, he abolished capital punishment for many offences, and provided education for prisoners. Friends in Pennsylvania also began thinking about prison design and the effect it has on behaviour. They developed the idea of the penitentiary, where prisoners were in individual cells, to give them space to become 'penitent' about their actions without being corrupted by other inmates.
Many individual Quakers have been practitioners in the prison service, as governors, officers, and prison ministers/chaplains, and made changes from within, where they could. One modern example is the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), begun in a New York jail by Friends responding to a request from prisoners for help in managing and reducing violent emotions and actions.
Quaker experience from both sides of the bars has enabled significant insights into an important social institution. Friends are very aware that attitudes to crime and justice is an area of social activity which reflects the values of a society most clearly and which also has the strongest impact on the most vulnerable groups.