What Do You Believe?: Prison Abolition and the Quaker Tradition

Header Photo: Markus Spiske

By: John Samson Fellows

An earlier version of this article was originally published in Quaker Concern by Canadian Friends Service Committee. It has been updated and republished here with permission.

The question “What do you believe?” is a challenge for an unprogrammed Quaker like me to answer, but I’ve found that the minutes of previous Quaker business meetings contain collective wisdom, innovation, Spirit, and Light that might provide some answers. Reading minute 93 of the 1981 Canadian Yearly Meeting, also known as “the minute on prison abolition” over a decade ago helped lead me to membership in the Religious Society of Friends. I think it may also function as a source of insight for other faith communities.

The fact that Canadian Quakers could approve such a far-reaching, self-aware, radical, and deeply loving statement made me want to know more about Friends’ ways. This remarkable piece of collaborative writing made the Canadian Yearly Meeting “the first religious body to call for the abolishment of prison,” and lies at the heart of the Canadian Friends Service Committee (CFSC)’s criminal justice work.

The minute begins by situating us within the history of Quaker responses to crime:

“Friends, partly through their own experiences in the prisons of the seventeenth century, became concerned about the treatment of the accused or convicted. Friends witnessed to their concern for the Divine Spirit in humans by seeing prisons as an alternative to corporal or capital punishment. Subsequently, they worked for reform of these prisons.” 

This gives us a long view of the development of the Quaker understanding of criminal justice, the enormous influence it has had on the world, and the unforeseen problems it contained. Quakers were among the first to promote the idea that incarceration was preferable to physical torture or death and believed that punishment and penance for crime could be accomplished via contemplation.

Many early penitentiaries enforced both isolation and silence, setting up the disastrous and inhumane conditions of the modern prison. Many Friends recognized that their original theories of incarceration were being used as new methods of torture, and attempted to reform the prisons they had helped create. This work brought us to the late 20th century and the moment Canadian Friends began to realize that their efforts at prison reform were no longer feasible: “Today, Friends are becoming aware that prisons are a destructive and expensive failure as a response to crime. We are, therefore, turning our efforts to reform prisons to efforts to replace them with non-punitive, life-affirming, and reconciling responses.”

For the 1981 Canadian Yearly Meeting in session, prison abolition was the logical next step in the long progression of Quaker thought. They not only recognized the need to physically dismantle an evil system, but also saw that they would have to rewire their own responses to crime, removing the impulse to punish and replacing it with ways to reconcile.

“The prison system is both a cause and a result of violence and social injustice. Throughout history, the majority of prisoners have been the powerless and the oppressed. We are increasingly clear that the imprisonment of human beings, like their enslavement, is inherently immoral and is as destructive to the cagers as the caged.”

Statistics continue to bear this out—it is no coincidence that most prisoners currently in jail in Canada are “the powerless and the oppressed.”

This paragraph also makes an evocative allusion to Quaker history—Quakers of the 18th century were led to look clearly at their sins and begin to work for the abolition of slavery. The concern for the spiritual well-being of those who run prisons echoes the work of past Friends like Benjamin Lay and John Woolman, who warned their fellow Quakers of the evil and soul-destroying nature of slaveholding. Friends here remind us that once we understand that something is wrong, we need to do something about it.

The challenge before us is to use alternatives based on economic and social justice and on the fulfillment of human needs. Some alternatives to prisons have already been developed and more are needed to bring about reconciliation and healing within the community. Friends need to seek out, develop, and support such programs. At the same time, we need to foster awareness in ourselves and others of the roots of crime and violence in society to ensure that our lives do not unintentionally reinforce these evils.” 

Here Friends make the case that prison abolition is a world building project connected to other great social and economic justice struggles of our time. We are encouraged to both generate our own alternatives to prisons, to make abolition a reality, and to support others engaged in this work. We are also reminded that the root of what we understand to be crime is injustice, and that injustice may be perpetuated in our own lives and ways of being.

“Prison abolition is both a process and a long-term goal. In the interim, there is a great need for Friends to reach out to and to support all those affected: guards, prisoners, victims, and families.” 

Abolition is not just a theory, it also consists of concrete actions we must take every day. I hear echoes in this of George Fox’s assertion that Christianity is “not a notion but a way.” Abolition is more than a political movement, it is a process of community healing and personal reconciliation.

“We recognize a need for restraint of those few who are exhibiting dangerous behaviour. The kind of restraint used and the help offered during this time must reflect our concern for that of God in every person.”

What seems like an afterthought or concession—that we will still need to use restraint on some people—turns out to be the most radical statement of the minute.

Our concern for that of God in everyone means absolutely everyone, even those who Friend Ruth Morris called “the dangerous few”, who she guessed made up 1 or 2 percent of prison populations. As she later put it, “persons who have committed a series of dangerous, violent acts need to be protected from their own impulses as much as we need to be protected from them. Such a separation must be in an environment completely different from our prisons, which are incubators of violence.”

Building this environment will depend on the structures of support and care we create in our communities and the accountability we build into our relationships with one another.

There is so much more wisdom and inspiration to be found in our Prison Abolition minute than I have space for here. I encourage readers to spend some time with the text) and to be open to what it may have to say to faith communities today.

If the minute shows us a progression from building prisons to reforming them and then working for their abolition, what might be next?

I personally find direction in the work of many social movements for racial and economic justice, including Justice 4 Black Lives Winnipeg. This group has sought to get the significant funding that currently goes to policing in the city shifted to investments in communities, seeing the abolition of police as the best path to the abolition of prisons and the establishment of true reconciliation and peace. Finding and supporting these expressions of abolition may connect you to those communities most affected by the criminal justice system.

I’m grateful that 40 years after it was approved, CYM minute 1981.08.93 abides in the work of the Canadian Friends Service Committee, and continues to provide me with one answer to the query, “What do you believe?”


John Samson Fellows is a cultural worker, activist, educator and abolitionist from Winnipeg, Treaty One Territory. He currently teaches creative writing at Stony Mountain Institution though the University of Winnipeg’s Walls to Bridges program.


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