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4 November 2008

Quakers for prison reform

Their belief in equality and justice, and a history of being jailed for their faith, have inspired Q

By Helen Drewery

Quakers (members of the Religious Society of Friends) are usually more concerned with living out their faith in their lives than with defining their faith. Our simple style of worship, based in silence, often provides the spiritual grounding for our efforts to make the world a better place, which in turn enriches our worship.

We have what we call Testimonies – I think of them as signposts or touchstones – which provide us with guidance in the large and small decisions of life. They can be summarised as Peace, Simplicity, Integrity and Equality. Out of our testimony to equality and justice have sprung such varied activities as campaigning to abolish slavery, providing good conditions for employees, choosing Fairtrade products, addressing racism and sexism within and beyond our own community and helping to set up Oxfam and the Child Poverty Action Group.

We also have a long tradition of working to improve the criminal justice system, specifically prison conditions. This goes back to our origins during the turbulent times of the seventeenth century, when many Quakers were thrown into the appalling prisons of the time for holding illegal meetings for worship. If you look very closely at a five pound note featuring Elizabeth Fry, you will see not only the portrait of a determined woman, but also a picture of her sitting in Newgate prison in 1823, reading from the Bible, with the light streaming in symbolically. On the left are members of the Ladies Committee she created, on the right the imprisoned women and children.

More recently, Quakers have been working on policy regarding the children of imprisoned mothers – when is it best for the baby or child to be with its mother, even in prison, and when is it harmful? Should childcare responsibilities be taken into account when offenders are sentenced? Quaker reports have been welcomed and considered by UN agencies.

Meanwhile, Quakers go on visiting prisoners and supporting moves to adopt restorative processes. Restorative justice aims, as much as possible, to heal the harm done by crime and look towards a better future. It usually does this by practical processes which bring together and consider the needs of the offender, victim and community.

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This fits closely with Quaker approaches to justice in the wider sense too – every individual is unique, precious, a child of God, and therefore should be valued and treated with respect in all situations.

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