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From the earliest days of their formation as the Religious Society of Friends, Quakers were imprisoned as they followed their evangelist leadings. Their crimes were blasphemy, public speaking, refusal to swear oaths, and disturbing the peace, among other distressing behaviors.

Quaker reform efforts focused at first on the atrocious conditions that were common in prisons and jails. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, in both England and the United States, prisoners were held in large rooms – often 30 to 40 together. Prisoners had to pay fees for their food and for all services, such as unlocking their irons so that they could attend their trial.

The women prisoners that Friend Elizabeth Fry encountered at Newgate in London had inadequate clothing and bedding for themselves and their small children, who were frequently jailed with them. Fry organized a society to help women prisoners school their children and make their own bedding and clothing.

Prisoners in the pre-trial jail in Philadelphia that Richard Wiston encountered were starving; Wiston brought them soup from home. These early hands-on efforts, which continued for generations, involved daily visits and contact with the prisoners.

In the U.S., in the late 17th and early 18th century, William Penn’s experiment included experiments in criminal justice. In Pennsylvania, the death penalty was abolished for all crimes except pre-meditated murder. Penn introduced the concept of prison labor – which he learned from Dutch prisons; men worked in “rasping houses” finishing and shaping wood, and women worked in “spin houses” spinning yarn. By 1718, however, English criminal law overrode Penn’s experiment and the death penalty and a wide range of corporal punishments returned as features of criminal law.

It was a Calvinist, though, not a Quaker, who introduced the idea of solitude and silence leading to repentance.

It was a Calvinist, though, not a Quaker, who introduced the idea of solitude and silence leading to repentance. A prison reformer who traveled throughout Europe, John Howard exposed the sordid conditions that Fry and Wiston and many others had witnessed and urged change, focusing especially on hygiene. His ideas took hold among some reformers in Philadelphia, notably Dr. Benjamin Rush.

By 1787, Dr. Rush had become a vocal critic of the American interpretation of English criminal law, in which the objective of punishment seemed to be to humiliate a prisoner while imposing hard labor, corporal punishments, and deprivation of food, sleep and other necessities. Dr. Rush, who had been greatly influenced by the writings of John Howard, advocated a different kind of punishment that combined concepts of physical pain, labor, solitude, watchfulness, silence, cleanliness and a simple diet. He recommended remote locations for prisoners, and doors that creaked when they opened and closed with “an echo…that shall deeply pierce the soul.” Though prisons were not built with these features in mind during Dr. Rush’s day, many of those features, including the echoing clang of electronically operated doors, seem to describe modern-day prisons.

Reform efforts took a turn toward theory in the early 19th century. Reacting, most likely, to the inhumanity that came with the continuing practice of crowding prisoners into one room, reformers began to look at separation of prisoners as a preferable condition. In 1790, 16 solitary cells were constructed in the yard of the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia, for “hardened criminals” who could be sent there from anywhere in the state. Other reforms – separating women from men, and debtors and witnesses from convicts, eliminating liquor and paying jailors a regular salary – took care of the most egregious conditions in the jails and prisons.

By 1800, the experiment of mixing populations in the Walnut Street Jail strained the system too much, and the state moved to open the first prison entirely constructed on the theory of solitary confinement – Eastern Pennsylvania Penitentiary — in 1829. This prison was designed and operated largely under the leadership of Quakers. Though the food and sanitation are reported to be better, prisoners had absolutely no contact with each other and had no activities to engage them. Rules were strict and plentiful and punishments were harsh.

Quakers were not all of one mind about solitary confinement.

Quakers were not all of one mind about solitary confinement. As the first penitentiary opened here in the U.S., Elizabeth Fry was addressing the British House of Commons in opposition to solitary confinement. Neither the architecture nor the extreme application of this model caught on in the United States. But many of the features of the early penitentiaries, including single cells, discipline, labor, “simple and inferior food”, both fixed and indeterminate sentences, classification of criminals, and even some sense of a hope for rehabilitation, have endured. Reform efforts have modified rather than revolutionized these prisons.

Quakers have continued to be involved in prison visitation, advocacy for shorter sentences and better conditions, opposition to the death penalty, education in prisons, and assistance for prisoners upon re-entry. The Alternatives to Violence Project, started by Quakers, has been embraced by prison authorities and prisoners across the country as a program that can make a positive difference in prisoners’ lives. Quakers have vigorously opposed the expansion of prisons, the growth of the prison industry, and the dramatic increase of the use of prison as a major response to a range of social challenges. And yet the number of prisoners – and prisons – continues to grow and grow.

Good reads

  • American Friends Service Committee, Struggle for Justice, Farrar Straus & Giroux, June 1971.
  • Laura Magnani, America’s First Penitentiary: a 200 Year Old Failure, American Friends Service Committee, 1990.
  • Laura Magnani and Harmon L. Wray, Beyond Prisons: a New Interfaith Paradigm for Our Failed Prison System, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2006.
  • Alternatives to Violence Project