Reforming the Modern Prison System With Quaker Values in Mind

The modern prison system is a legacy of Quaker ideology, asserts Christina Pan, FGC’s intern through the Georgetown VIEW Program.

The modern American prison system originates from Pennsylvania’s Constitution in the “Great Law” of 1682, spearheaded by English Quaker William Penn. Based on the core tenets of religious freedom, education and work access for individuals of all genders, fairer treatment for Native Americans, and most importantly, a penal code meant to reform, rather than to punish, Quakers created a progressive state, distinct from other American states at the time.

In English colonies, prior to the formation of America as a sovereign state, capital punishment existed for over 200 different crimes. In this colonial prison system, each inmate would have to provide for their own lodging and meals without a job, leading to most ex-inmates accruing a life of debt, inevitably leading to further crime. In the Quaker’s prison system, considered to be more enlightened at the time, capital punishment was restricted to crimes of murder and treason. All other crimes were made bailable. In prison, each inmate would be provided with housing, meals, and other fees free of charge, and would learn a trade in order to be employed after release. Quaker thought of prison as a medium for rehabilitation rather than as a place for punitive retaliation.

This prison system would continue to evolve after 1682. By 1825, Quakers pushed hard to reform prisons from the conventional large, dungeon-like cells, which would typically house all 30 or 40 prisoners together, to a more human system of cells housing 2-4 inmates separated by the degree of the crime, from hardened criminals to petty thieves, and furthermore made distinctions by gender and age.

By 1829, America’s first infamous prison complex, or the first “supermax,” known as the Eastern State Penitentiary, opened its doors to inmates.1 In contemporary wisdom, Quakers are typically accredited as the founders of solitary confinement. In reality, the Quakers proposed this system as an alternative to capital punishment at the time, rather than as a punitive system. By 1838, several prominent Quakers began to speak out against solitary confinement and its long-lasting psychological impacts on inmates. By this time, it was clear what started as the “Great Experiment” for humanitarian reform was no longer fully in the hands of Quakers.

As the world moved into the industrial revolution and to further spheres of modernity, the prison system would expand to accommodate the world’s growing population and increasing crime rate. At any given time, around two million Americans2 are incarcerated, making the United States the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. Modern-day language of crime and punishment, with phrases like “war on crime,” invoke roots deep within the American memory of religious demand; the very system that Quakers fought against.

In modern days, many political thinkers leverage religious faith in order to justify a punitive prison system. Brennan Center’s Jonathan Simon coined a term known as “Punitive Civic Religion,”3 derived from medieval theology. In this framework, society holds criminals accountable for their crimes without much afterthought on what these crimes really are — intricate social occurrences with numerous contributing factors, not just a singular occurrence on the shoulders of one person. The intended outcomes of the criminal system should involve reintegration, but in practice it has typically meant the opposite.

Though the fundamental core principles of the penal system have undoubtedly been corrupted by mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline, and several other undeniable socioeconomic factors, many Quakers have worked in the prison system as officials, governors, pastors, or chaplains. When they had the power to, many of them changed things from within the prison system. For example, the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), started in a New York jail by Friends in response to a request from inmates for assistance in controlling and reducing violent emotions and acts.

The challenges faced by the modern American prison system can be addressed through a renewed focus on rehabilitation and restoration. By embracing initiatives that seek to transform aggressive behavior and violence into through shared experiences and creative responses, there is potential for positive change. Through practical and compassionate efforts, it is possible to work towards a more effective and humane justice system.


  • How can Friends engage with ex-offenders to assist in their re-entry into society?
  • How can Friends eliminate the causes for crime in their communities?

Christina Pan is an undergraduate at Georgetown University with a keen interest in storytelling, especially in how to re-adapt narratives to different audiences and perspectives. She’s thrilled to be working with Friends General Conference and to be learning more about the Quaker community.


  1. Rehabilitative Faith by Jacob Abolafia ↩︎
  2. “What percent of the U.S. is incarcerated?” (And other ways to measure mass incarceration) by Peter Wagner and Wanda Bertram ↩︎
  3. Losing Our Punitive Civic Religion by Jonathan Simon ↩︎
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