Note: This is the second installment of a series of three interviews with people who are living out Quaker values through their healing justice work. The first, an interview with Philadelphia Quaker and organizer J. Jondhi Harrell, can be read here.
Lewis Webb is a program coordinator in AFSC’s New York office. He has leadership roles in The Campaign to End the New Jim Crow, the Healing and Transformative Justice program, and the Quaker Network to End Mass Incarceration. Although he doesn’t identify as a Friend, he is thoroughly enmeshed in Quaker communities and is passionate about building a criminal justice system that recognizes that of God within all people.
Healing and transformative justice
Madeline Smith-Gibbs (MSG): How did you first get involved in issues of mass incarceration?
Lewis Webb (LW): Mass incarceration for me has been 30 years of work. Unfortunately, most of it has been on the wrong side of it. I was a prosecutor here in New York when mass incarceration really took off in the 90s. Obviously we did not use that term, but it was not uncommon that every prosecution that we put forth, we sought prison time – even if we knew that prison wasn’t the right place, it was the option that we all thought was the best. I certainly helped send people who never should have been in prison to prison.
I’ve also worked in the prisons. When I joined the New York City Department of Corrections as a consultant first and then as an analyst, one of the things that we looked at is whether we could sustain the massive prison population that we were looking at. We realized that economically or fiscally we can’t sustain it, so we started looking at alternatives. There weren’t very many, so we invented a few. We looked at the bail system – maybe there’s a way to lessen our jail population by lowering bails or having judges not impose bail on certain people. We looked at other opportunities like drug courts – ways to find alternatives for people for whom addiction and healthcare issues were really the drivers for their incarceration, and maybe the prison system is just not appropriate for them.
So my work has been widespread around mass incarceration: contributing to it, mitigating it, and now, trying to end it. It just can’t continue. Economically, it doesn’t make sense. Morally, it’s wrong. It impacts too many people in too many negative ways.
MSG: Tell me about your work here at AFSC’s New York office.
LW: Upon joining AFSC, I realized that I brought a lot of experience but it was very tilted in one direction. Much of my work was on the punishment end of the criminal justice system, so I was excited about looking at healing and transforming the system so that we don’t punish people so much. AFSC has given me the opportunity to learn about alternatives to incarceration – we’ve all heard about them but we don’t really understand their importance until we delve into them.
Learning about healing modalities, learning about opportunities to mitigate punishment, learning about how prisons have very little value other than to cause harm – has been so enlightening and forward-thinking for me that all of my energy now is put into that.
What I do particularly is two major programs. We have the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow, which is a program designed to heal people who have been impacted by mass incarceration. It’s not just the people who’ve gone to prison or who are in prison, but also their families and definitely the communities from which they come and often return to.
The question becomes for me and the people I work with: what are the harms of mass incarceration? When you start listing them, it’s frightening. One of the more glaring harms that we focus on is continuing punishment: something we call in the industry collateral consequences, which is all of those things that people deal with even after they finish the terms of their sentence. We’re talking about access to housing being denied, the right to vote often being denied, access to education is hindered, employment is almost impossible.
So when you talk about healing, how do you heal when the punishment continues? There has to be a mechanism in place where we mitigate, if not end, those continued punishments. We work a lot around that. We are currently doing a felon disenfranchisement campaign, looking at opportunities to afford the right to vote to people with felony convictions. There’s been a lot of talk about voter suppression during the last few years, but people don’t talk about the most long-standing form of voter disenfranchisement: felon disenfranchisement. We have an estimated 5.85 million people who can’t vote. When we look at the racial impact on that particular issue, it’s alarming. In certain states, one in five black adults cannot vote due to felon disenfranchisement.
We also support a lot of efforts around “banning the box.” That “box” refers to the question often found on job applications: have you ever been convicted of a crime? Although there are rules in place that should not allow employers to automatically disqualify you, many people are denied just because of their history.
Then we have our Hope Lives for Lifers program. It’s designed to promote healing in a small population in the prisons, the people who probably are never getting out. To be told, often at 17 or 18 years old, that you’re going to spend the rest of your life in a prison environment – what level of harm does that cause? What opportunities for healing do those people get? The answer is very little. So we designed a program which was recently approved by the New York State prison system to work with these men and women and to help them understand what life is going to be like in prison, and how do you survive 40 or 50 years in prison. We’re excited to be in prisons across New York State working with lifers and helping them map their sentences and do the best they can under the harshest environment.
They and us are the same
MSG: How do Quaker values shape your work within mass incarceration?
LW: Not being a Quaker myself, I often look for guidance within the Quaker community for my work. I’m lucky to be sharing an office floor with New York Yearly Meeting, so I have access to Quakers all the time. The one thing that I’ve carried from just about every conversation I’ve had with Quakers about this is the value of recognizing that of God within all of us. I think the criminal justice system doesn’t understand that, or even acknowledge it.
So that’s what I bring to every conversation: the worst among us has that of God in them. If we honor that belief, if we acknowledge that possibility, then how much harm are we prepared to cause? Very often when we talk about criminal justice policies and practices, it’s an us-versus-them approach: they did, they are, therefore they must – so that we can be protected and safe. But if we can find commonality in all of us – part of that being that of God within all of us if you ascribe to a religious lifestyle – then you don’t have to separate. That’s how this system is going to be fixed: if we really understand that they and us are the same.
MSG: Given that many Quaker meetings are composed of people who have often no direct, personal experience with the school-to-prison pipeline, or racial profiling, or the criminal justice system more generally, where should Quakers who are interested in getting involved start? What are some ground rules they should consider?
LW: I ask Quakers first to challenge themselves to discern – to step back. You want to get engaged, you’re called to do something, but I believe the first step for Quakers is to step back and listen to the messages that are being sent to you. The media, the communities – they’re all yelling, you have to do this, you have to do that. Most Quakers are not in the midst of it, so I think the first step is to step back from the call to do work and listen. Listen to where you are, or try to find out where you are.
There are a lot of opportunities to get engaged for people who are not impacted. One of the opportunities that I strongly support is Quaker meetings for worship inside prisons. The people I’ve talked to who did attend Quaker meeting in prison say it was such a healing opportunity for them. Many people in prison come from a religious background that often assigns blame and criticizes those who deviate from the teachings of the church, but many of the men I’ve talked to tell me that the Quaker meetings for worship didn’t do that. It gave them a space to feel whole and not blamed for their actions. That for me is probably the most valuable thing that Quakers are doing now, and I hope they continue to do and spread that work.
However, some Quakers want to do some on-the-ground advocacy, and they question, you know, we’re white, most of us have not been to prison, we go to schools that don’t experience the school-to-prison pipeline – what should we do? For me the word accompaniment stands out. The community of color that I come from and
am in the midst of is prepared to challenge this injustice, but we don’t have all that we need. I’m excited when I can bring Quaker perspective to that community’s efforts. Quakers are not a large denomination in comparison to others in the United States, so I don’t think you can bring mass numbers to this work, but you can bring a level of teaching and a level of understanding that is often missing – the understanding that there is that of God within all of us, that healing is paramount.
One of the challenges that we face when we do this work is that you’re advocating for prison reform, for less incarceration, for alternatives to incarceration, but we don’t get to engage the traditional victim in the criminal justice system. I think the Quaker perspective allows that, allows for honest dialogue for communities that are separated by the system. Whenever I’m at a table and I can lift up that possibility, I lift up Quaker values. Quakers should be prepared to join those conversations – not lead them, but fit in.
I urge every Quaker community that I work with to find your place. Don’t force it, don’t overstep, but don’t hide because you’re white. Don’t believe that you don’t have a voice in this, because you do.
Acting in faith
MSG: I’m wondering if you could speak to what gives you hope moving forward.
LW: There’s a Jewish proverb – and I know I’m going to misquote it – that says, you may not have the capacity to fix things but you have the obligation to try. For me, that is what drives me and gives me hope. I don’t need to expect that mass incarceration will end because of the work that we do. But I have to believe that every ounce of work that we do will contribute to a positive change. Therefore I cannot stop.
I’m somewhat afraid for the generations of young men growing up now, but what’s making it ok for me is that they are now understanding it and finding their place in the work. It was very hard, 10 years ago, to talk to young black men about police and prisons – because it just meant, that’s where I’m going or that’s my adversary. But I think now that they’re finding support from the larger community, they’re able to have hope for themselves and able to find energy to fight the injustices. As a 52-year-old man who’s looking forward to retirement, I need to believe that my son and his peers are not going to just accept. There’s been a lot to help them not do that: Michelle Alexander’s book has become a major tool, voices are coming from people they listen to, the music industry is starting to understand their role. I have hope that we won’t have a community or generation of complacency. I’m looking forward to continuing my role in teaching and energizing the next generation.
MSG: Anything else you’d like to say?
LW: I’ve thought a lot about “acting in faith.” It’s faith that is guiding this for me. It’s faith in the goodness of people. Faith for me is believing that the unlikely can be likely. Right now that’s what guides this work for many of us: the belief that we as a society can lessen our thirst for punishment, lessen our thirst for revenge. I need to believe that, or else I’m spinning my wheels here. I am “acting in faith” – I’m acting in the belief that my work coupled with the amazing work done by thousands of other people will get us to a point beyond prisons, where we have a community that can learn from those we’ve ostracized and labeled and hidden away. I think all of us are acting in faith. We have a belief that there is and will be a better way.