Quakers in Criminal Justice

May 2008 Newsletter


It is true that The Guardian once referred to Chelmsford as “exceptionally mediocre”. I could live with that; life is what you make of it, wherever you happen to be. But I write this particular editorial with a sense of shame, as our local prison is in the news through a spate of suicides – eight in the past year, at the time of writing. I think of the effect on the morale of the prison, and the guilt of the magistrates and judges who consigned those men to custody, with no intention of sending them to their deaths. I do not blame the officers; there is only one member of staff for every thirty men. While prison numbers continue to rise unchallenged, I hear of an actual reduction in funding – the weekend bang-up at Chelmsford will have to start at midday Friday, in order to save money.

Meanwhile, I hear of Quaker Prison Ministers being denied access to prisons on a variety of pretexts. The fact is, the Quaker persistence in looking for something of God in everyone we meet is seriously out of fashion; all the emphasis is on blame, and excluding from the community people we do not know what to do with. The opposite of faith is not disbelief, but fear. We are building a fearful society, literally building, if Jack Straw's titan prisons really come about, at a cost of £3 billion; one thinks what such a sum could achieve, if directed instead towards providing affordable housing, creating jobs, and – my own particular priority – developing more effective programmes of birth control. I support the aim of the Family Planning Association – “Every Child a Wanted Child”. I meet too many children and young adults who were clearly never intended in the first place, and often my main contribution seems to be to give them a sense that they matter in the eternal scheme of things. I was impressed by the broadcast message Elizabeth Windsor gave on Christmas Day, of the need to bring into a more central place those on the margins of society. Sending so many to prison is a denial of this. And to clutter up the prisons with many serving short sentences prevents much useful work that could be done with the few who really need to be there. As regards criminal justice, our present Government is morally bankrupt.

I am glad to say the Anglican Bishop of Chelmsford, John Gladwin, has spoken in the House of Lords, concerned about the number of suicides at Chelmsford, and the excessive number of children and young people in custody. And I am glad to include an interview with a recent inmate who is able to offer a more positive picture of life at HMP Chelmsford.

Adrian Smith
Newsletter editor

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