Quakers in Criminal Justice

April 2010 Newsletter


I make no apology for giving the recent QICJ conference such full coverage in this issue (read a report here). It was a well-attended and very moving occasion, in which prison staff, police, magistrates, probation, ex­offenders and volunteers all made their voices heard. It was above all a warmly human event. As we wander through a wilderness of restrictions, regulations and acronyms, it is easy to forget that the criminal justice system is concerned above all with PEOPLE, each of them (in the Quaker view) a child of God, and with potential to enrich the human community.

In this editorial I want to draw attention to two people caught up in the criminal justice system, neither of them Quakers, and almost certainly not known to each other. The first is a young American, the second a Londoner.

Colton Harris-Moore is not a film star as his name might suggest, but a youth of 18 who for the past two years has been causing havoc in the country north of Seattle. The Guardian Weekly calls him “the barefoot bandit of the North West”. The present phase of his career began when he escaped from a halfway house for juvenile offenders, where he had been doing well. He has shown unusual talent in evading arrest. He maintains himself by numerous burglaries, which he often commits unshod, as a kind of trademark. He taught himself to fly from books, and has three times stolen light planes for a getaway, and lived to tell the tale – though his skill in flying, like mine in ice-skating, ends when he needs to land. We can both only come to land by crashing. Thanks to Facebook, Colton has an extensive fan club; a ballad has been sung in his honour, and T­shirts are on sale.

Though such young offenders are a confounded nuisance to respectable society, it is difficult not to admire the effrontery of the lad. His career bears out my assertion that a lot of crime is misdirected talent. My fear is that when he is eventually captured, he will be gunned down in a spirit of revenge by the police he has outwitted for so long – an outcome which will only fuel his legend of defiance – or else will survive to be sentenced to decades behind bars, this effectively depriving the community of the contribution of a capable and potentially very useful young man.

At the other end of the criminal justice spectrum, so to speak, I note Caroline Wilkinson, a woman in her sixties who for more than ten years has been going into HMP Wandsworth as a volunteer, to teach the inmates patchwork and quilting. This is part of a project called Fine Cell Work, and it offers a welcome change from the matchstick models we all know. Prison offers almost unlimited free time, but facilities are restricted. Caroline is a non-authoritarian figure who could be anyone's grandmother. As I grow older, my respect grows for the unacknowledged contribution made to our society by its grandparents (I wonder why). Repetitive work can be healing for people in distress, and at the end of the day, they can see what they have achieved. Producing things that can be sold helps to raise the self-esteem of inmates. Even illiterate prisoners can be quilters – some so good that they receive commissions from outsiders, even, on one occasion, from a duchess.

More strength to your fingers, Caroline – you are an example of the small transforming circles in which Quakers are encouraged to put their trust.

Adrian Smith
Newsletter editor

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