Quakers in Action: Reformers in Criminal Justice

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Reformers in Criminal Justice

Many Quakers have worked for reform of the criminal justice systems of their day. Quakers believe that people can always change: their focus has been on reforms that make positive change more likely, such as increased opportunities for education, improved prison conditions, help with facing up to violent impulses, and much else. Nowadays, restorative justice approaches are a central focus.

William Penn was the first great Quaker prison reformer. In his ‘Great Experiment’ in Pennsylvania in the 1680s he abolished capital punishment for all crimes except murder. He also stated that ‘prisons shall be workhouses,’ that bail should be allowed for minor offences’, and ‘all prisons shall be free, as to fees, food and lodgings’. He provided for rehabilitation, as he stipulated that prisoners should be helped to learn a trade, so that they could make an honest living when they were released. These were radical reforms for his time, putting into practice his Quaker faith in equality and the possibility of nurturing ‘that of God’ in everyone.

John Bellers (1654-1725) was the earliest British Friend to pay serious and systematic attention to social reform. He pleaded for the abolition of the death penalty, the first time this plea had been made. He argued that criminals were the creation of society itself and urged that when in prison there should be work for prisoners so that they might return to the world with an urge to industry. Bellers issued in 1724 an Epistle to Friends, pleading for a combined effort at penal reform, but there was no response. The ideas had come too soon. Only in Pennsylvania did the ideas find a place in the seventeenth century.

In eighteenth century Britain, John Howard’s important work ‘State of the Prisons’ (1777) drew attention to the conditions of prisons. He was strongly supported by Friends who developed the Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline and the Reformation of Juvenile OffendersThey supported Howard’s promotion of an Act of Parliament in 1774. Unfortunately this was not implemented, because public opinion was not ready to make it work.

Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) was the most famous of Quaker reformers, though others were equally influential in raising public awareness. Reforms such as the separation of women and children from men and the development of purposeful activity of work or education came about through pressure from informed people. Elizabeth Fry’s work in Newgate raised public awareness to the horrors of the women’s prison. She gave evidence before a Committee of the House of Commons revealing the facts she had unearthed and outlining reforms that would remedy the worst of the corrupt practices. Her work remains an inspiration to those who understand the courage called for in taking on this cause.

Quakers have been active in the Howard League for Prison Reform.  William Tallach was its first secretary from1866 to 1879, and he became a leading influence against the death penalty. Margery Fry was its secretary in 1921, and was also a significant researcher and writer. She challenged the complete focus on punishing the offender, with little consideration being given to those damaged by the offence. This led eventually to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board (1964) and indirectly to legislation leading to compensation orders. Roy Calvert (1898-1933) was a leading campaigner against the death penalty and raised the public awareness about its implications.

David Wills (1903-1980) was a centrally important figure in the development of what is regarded as being one of the most just and humane types of holding regime. In the 1930s and 40s he developed the concept of therapeutic communities in Hawkspur Camp and theBarns Hostel School, based on principles of relationships and self-learning. His was a strong influence at Glebe House in Cambridgeshire, set up in 1969 as a therapeutic community for teenage men. His understanding of punishment as intrinsically evil led British Friends to take up this issue, and ‘Six Quakers look at Crime and Punishment’ - published in 1979, was the result. The ideas contained in the book were not universally accepted but it provoked much thought and discussion, and continues to challenge those who work within the criminal justice system.

Quaker Eric Baker campaigned for better treatment of political prisoners. In 1961 he wrote an article in the Observer newspaper calling for an amnesty for all political prisoners. This began a campaign that led to the founding of Amnesty International in 1962.

Today Quakers are engaged in campaigning on many current crime and justice issues, notably restorative justice and women prisoners.

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