Quakers in Criminal Justice

Whose Hands are at Work Within the Justice System?

The 2010 conference of Quakers in Criminal Justice took place at Glenthorne Quaker Study Centre, Grasmere, Cumbria, from 26 to 28 February. The conference set out to consider the perspectives of those working closely within the system, seeking to deliver justice in direct relationship with offenders, victims and witnesses, and derived its title from a passage in the epistle from Britain Yearly Meeting 2001:

In whatever steps we take, remember that it is as disciples that we act. In our religious society, membership is a commitment to God. May prayer and worship underpin all our work. God has no hands but ours; let us not sit on them.

Forty-five Friends, including a number of first-timers, gathered at the opening session with Vivien Stern (of the House of Lords and the International Centre for Prison Studies, London). Speaking as a legislator, she gave us an overview which was by turns alarming, amusing and encouraging (though rather little of the latter). She gave us devastating figures of the increase in numbers of offences committed, of prisons being set up, and prisoners incarcerated. There followed heartrending statistics about the brutal attitude towards children and young people. There is cause for hope in a lower suicide rate in prisons, and ideas about “justice reinvestment”. She concluded that it now seemed acceptable to do awful things to “unwanted people” and what we have is an “injustice system”.

Workshop leaders were more upbeat. A community police­man with 26 years experience talked about his work with local communities, problem solving and starting local initiatives for disaffected youth, such as football teams and a motorbike project. A film made by the young people is being shown in schools, about ABCs (Acceptable Behaviour Contracts).

Another workshop was led by a senior probation officer and a prison officer from a therapeutic prison. They were enthusiastic about their work and what they could achieve, despite cutbacks and discouraging trends. We did practical exercises, looking at the “baggage” carried by probation officers and by clients; and at the roles of different professions and agencies in prisons.

A third workshop was led by a magistrate, who made very clear how most cases are complicated, difficult and have to be dealt with at a personal level, rather than just in the generalized way that politicians tend to see as a simple and easy solution. He described how, in his home town, schemes were successfully working with prostitutes and Saturday night revelers without resorting to the courts.

We also had a session entitled “Learning from Experience — Personal Narratives from the Criminal Justice System” led by representatives from the Crime and Community Justice Group of Quaker Peace and Social Witness. This is a project to gather personal stories on how people have been affected by processes and sentences in the criminal justice system. Stories gathered by Quakers are beginning to flow in, and each one is being read by two members of CCJG. It is too soon to note significant trends.

The final session was led by Bob and Sue Johnson. Bob's insistence that all human beings are born lovable, sociable and non-violent is out of favour with most of those who administer the criminal justice system today, and The James Nayler Foundation has been set up to protect and publicise his work. As a psychiatrist working with dangerous and violent men, he discovered that drugs are not nearly so effective as the experience of truth, trust and consent, which is something new to many offenders.

An innovation at the previous QICJ conference was small groups, and these were repeated this year. They provided a relaxed setting in which the participants could mull over the other sessions. They were much appreciated, as they also helped us to get to know each other — there were quite a few new participants. Our Meeting for Worship on Sunday morning was a moving occasion, bringing together our experiences of the weekend.

We were lucky with the weather. Views from Glenthorne were wonderful, and those of us who went on the Saturday afternoon walk had even better prospects from the snowbound summit of Silver Howe. Others stayed below the snowline and explored Grasmere village.

Of course one of the main purposes of the conference was to meet old Friends and make new ones. QICJ conferences are the only place I know where different professions, paid and voluntary, can exchange views in a friendly, informal atmosphere. The next QICJ conference is 25—27 February 2011, at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, Birmingham — see you there!