AFSC and Prison Reform
Eddie Conway, former inmate and founder of the Friend of a Friend program.
The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, with over 2.4 million people currently behind bars ... a 500 percent increase over the past 30 years. The United States has 5 percent of the world population, yet approximately 25 percent of its prisoners.
AFSC works to improve conditions, both through direct work with people in prison and through advocacy at the state and federal level. It also seeks to support those returning to the community after incarceration.
For example, the AFSC promotes mentoring programmes in prisons, such as the Friend of a Friend program in Maryland. Drawing on similar ideas to AVP, men within the prison system act as mentors to other prisoners helping them to develop conflict resolution skills and handle violent feelings.
In California, they host “Women Healing from Violence,” classes in the federal women’s prison and the Santa Cruz County jail, helping women prisoners to deal with their own histories of abuse and neglect.
In Seattle, the ASFC’s Community Justice Program develops youth leadership for social change and works to end racial disparities in the juvenile and adult justice systems.
AFSC also documents conditions in private prisons and campaigns to stop the privatization of prisons, jails, and detention centres, which they believe prioritises profits ahead of the needs of taxpayers, prisoners, and prison employees.
In 2006, the AFSC published “Beyond Prisons: A New Interfaith Paradigm of Our Failed Prison System,” by Laura Magnani and Harmon L Wray, which provides a moral and ethical assessment of the prison system and offers a new paradigm of criminal justice based on restorative practices and reconciliation.
Two key national campaigns are that against the mass incarceration of people of colour, and that against the widespread and indiscriminate use of solitary confinement.
Mass Incarceration of People of Colour
The impact of this can be far reaching. Those convicted of a felony lose their right to vote even after their release from prison.
The AFSC is closely involved with the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow (named after a black character in minstrel shows; up until the 1960s there were racial segregation laws, known as Jim Crow laws, in many states). This campaign is committed to ending mass incarceration and seeks a healing model of justice, which does not criminalize people for public health problems like drug addiction, and does not criminalize poverty. The campaign provides support to communities of colour disproportionately impacted by incarceration.
The AFSC campaigns actively against solitary confinement in prisons, especially its use over prolonged periods. Their website notes that, while solitary confinement violates the UN Convention Against Torture, nevertheless, more than 80,000 people are being held in long-term solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, and even more are held in isolation in immigrant detention centres and juvenile facilities.
AFSC staff member Laura Magnani, a nationally known expert on solitary confinement, has testified against its use at hearings in California. In New York / New Jersey, the Prison Watch Program monitors human rights abuses in prisons and draws attention to the use of isolation and torture.
As early as the 1680s, Pennsylvania Quakers were campaigning against the death penalty, urging incarceration as a humane alternative.
In 1978, the AFSC published Regional Strategies Against the Death Penalty, the result of a conference to strengthen state-wide coalitions against the death penalty in the states of Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri and Nebraska.
Currently, as the use of the death penalty varies from state to state, there is currently no national campaign by the AFSC. Campaigns are focused locally, for example in New Hampshire.