The American Friends Service Committee has provided support to people in prison in the U.S. for nearly 100 years. The driving force behind AFSC’s work in this arena has always been the Quaker belief that there is that of God in each person, leading us to respect the worth, dignity, and equality of all and to promote healing—rather than punishment—in the criminal justice system.
Quakers played a major role in the creation of the first penitentiary in the country, the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia. In 1790, a prison reform group in Pennsylvania, half of whose members were Quaker, was also pivotal in the introduction of a new unit designed to keep people deemed the hardest cases in long-term isolation.
Their thinking was that if prisoners were isolated for a length of time, they would reflect on what they’d done and, eventually, repent. Instead, the prolonged isolation amounted to cruel and inhumane punishment.
Says Laura Magnani of AFSC’s Healing Justice Program in San Francisco: “This was a reform that was better than dungeons, but it got out of hand immediately. Yet once the first institutions were built, there was no going back.”
Although Friends helped to create prisons as we know them, they also provided aid to the people who had been incarcerated. Quakers visited prisons, supplying inmates with food and other necessities.
During World Wars I and II, AFSC monitored the inhumane treatment of conscientious objectors held in prisons and military facilities, arranging visits and calling for amnesty and the restoration of their civil rights.
Working with conscientious objectors reawakened Quakers’ historic concern for all prisoners. In 1946, AFSC began to encourage Friends meetings around the country to establish local committees to help people in prison in their communities. “It is important that all of us become more aware of our own direct or indirect involvement in the crimes committed, and of our responsibility toward the men and women who have served or are serving time in penal institutions,” the AFSC board wrote.
A focus on communities of color
By the 1960s, AFSC’s criminal justice work had spread to cities across the country. Halfway houses were operated in cities such as Des Moines and Los Angeles. Pre-trial assistance programs for those who couldn’t afford to post bail began in Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.
Through these programs, AFSC saw firsthand the disproportionate harm inflicted by the justice system on the poor and communities of color. When AFSC publicly reaffirmed its opposition to the death penalty in 1967, the board underscored these racial and economic injustices, citing New York as an example, where 80 percent of people sentenced to death between 1959 and 1964 were Black or Puerto Rican.
When police officers shot and killed dozens of residents following race riots in 1967 in Detroit and Newark, New Jersey, AFSC took a stand against police brutality. The board wrote that, “A terrible question is being raised in American society today concerning what value our culture and civilization places upon human life. … Our commitment is to a system of maintaining domestic peace and order which is based on justice for all citizens and so has their respect, and which apprehends, judges, and deals with offenders in ways which respect human dignity and the potential for good in each person.”
As the passage of “tough-on-crime” laws swelled populations in U.S. prisons in the 1970s and ’80s, communities struggled with the shattering effects of large numbers of men and women behind bars—separated from their families and society, given limited opportunities for rehabilitation, and faced with meager economic prospects after their release.
“As a pacifist organization, we often have to redefine what we call violence,” says Lewis Webb, Jr., director of AFSC’s New York office. “It is violent to take parents from children. It is violent to put people in prison for 20 to 30 years. It’s a form of violence that anyone who claims to be a pacifist should be against.”
Calling for transformational change
Even before President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in the U.S., AFSC recognized that the system of criminal justice was not working.
In January 1970, AFSC formed a working party to examine the system and explore alternatives. The group included people who had been—or currently were—in prison, along with criminologists, educa-tors, and lawyers.
The result was the book “Struggle for Justice.” The report earned national acclaim for its harsh criticism of the criminal justice system’s role in perpetuating second-class status for people of color.
It also called for sweeping changes— decriminalizing drug-related offenses and applying criminal laws uniformly, among others. But its primary recommendation was ending indeterminate sentencing, a practice that left release dates largely up to parole boards. However, when states took action to end indeterminate sentencing, a new system with its own injustices was introduced: mandatory sentencing laws. The introduction of these laws is one example of the difficulties involved in advocating for incremental change at the edges of a dysfunctional system.
Today, AFSC continues to support people affected by the criminal justice system, both with programs for people in prison and through research and advocacy efforts focused on issues such as ending mass incarceration, abolishing solitary confinement, stopping prison privatization, and opposing the detention of immigrants. While accompanying people and communities most affected by this system, AFSC has continued to call for systemic changes focused on redeeming lives rather than throwing them away.
“In the U.S. justice system, we have given ourselves permission to respond as violently as we think we need to, to people accused of crimes, including killing them,” Laura says. “We have to behave very differently if we want to break this cycle. What kind of world do we want to live in? That’s a question we all need to ask ourselves.”