How Quakers Can Help End Mass Incarceration

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, with over 2.4 million people currently behind bars. What can Quakers do about it?

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Jon Watts

Jon Watts launched and directed the QuakerSpeak project for its first 6 seasons. Keep up to date with Jon’s work at his website.

9 thoughts on “How Quakers Can Help End Mass Incarceration

  1. I knew that prison populations in the USA were high and we here in the UK have followed similar policies of banging up large numbers of the disadvantaged and ethnic minority communities. Our prison population doubled from 1994 when I wrote my MA dissertation on mentally disordered offenders from 44,000 then to currently nearly 90,000 in grossly overcrowded prisons suffering continuing staff cuts to dangerously unsafe levels with rapidly increasing prisoner suicides. We spending £40,000 per prisoner per year on incarceration. Those people incarcerated were already did-integrated from mainstream society, often unemployed, with mental health problems, addiction, from broken homes with parents who had similar problems (cycles of deprivation), suffering homelessness and so on. If we are willing to spend £40,000 a year on such people when they commit offences, then THERE ARE MUCH BETTER WAYS OF SPENDING (INVESTING) £40,000 per year on them than by banging them up in prison (warehousing) and further dis-integrating from mainstream society by making it even harder to get jobs, to form stable adult relationships, to set up homes -all those things which contribute to someone becoming a useful member of mainstream society. American society, like British society, needs to stop thinking punitively and vengeful ly (because vengeance is what it is) and instead think about helping offenders integrate better into mainstream society. For sure there is a percentage (relatively small in the UK) of offenders who must be incarcerated to protect society at large, and there are those who are “psychopathic” for whom we have no means of helping to integrate normally. But that must not deter us from finding better ways of spending the enormous sums involved in incarceration on offenders. AND THERE ARE MUCH BETTER WAYS!

  2. I never really spent much time thinking about this subject. Thank you for the video and providing a truthful point of view.

  3. Thanks for these three comments. I appreciate your engagement, Olivia, Noel, and Jim. I was thinking the other day about the huge increase in tuition and fees for college in the United States. I wonder whether anyone has done research to directly tie those increases to our massive spending on incarceration… Since a huge proportion of this money is spent at the state level, I think it could be correlated. So, we have huge indebtedness resulting from spending on higher education in the US, which constricts opportunity and choices after accumulating that indebtedness. I think there have been studies correlating this spending with divestment in public education in general. Linda Stout did a successful action with her community in Louisiana many years ago in which they staged a graduation from a community college at the proposed site of a prison and they stopped it. I think Laura’s point about what we lose, what we are not investing in as a result of massive spending and investment in incarceration is a really critical point – we all lose and society suffers. Certainly those incarcerated and their families the most, but it really does hurt us all.

  4. I am inspired by the work of these friends, and I look forward to continue working with them. My meeting (15th St MM) has recently contributed to NYC AFSC’s collaboration with Riverside Church for parole reform, a program co-organized by Lewis Webb. And Laura Magnani speaks and writes movingly about the horrors of mass incarceration.
    We all share a responsibility to dismantle the deadly prison-industrial complex. Thank goodness that people are beginning to understand this.
    For people with little knowledge of the subject, a superb source of information is Michelle Alexander’s book THE NEW JIM CROW.

  5. Thanks for this. Made me take Tim Newell’s 2000 Swarthmore lecture from the book shelve. He offers his experience as prison governor under the title ‘Forgiving Justice – A Quaker vision for criminal justice ‘. And then Dominic Barter and restorative circles.

  6. I suspect the situation is nurtured by remnants of white entitlement embedded in the virus of colonialism. All colonised countries are contaminated by this curse. Perhaps we need to stop pruning the edges and concentrate on removing the root.
    For example, in Australia the most disadvantaged are the First Nations people and they are most imprisoned indigenous people on Earth.
    This is a country that has the audacity to claim that it is “….the land of the ‘Fair Go'”.
    May we walk the path of Equity and genuine remorse.

  7. This video is a vital response to mass incarceration. Recently, I read Douglas Blackmon’s book Slavery By Another Name. With each chapter, the realization hit me hard that we’re still doing this–I read about horrific cruelty committed against African Americans from the 1870s through to the 1940s in deeply racist areas of country. It was carried out by judges, sheriffs, politicians up to and including governors, and business owners. Present-day mass incarceration is a continuation of that legacy.

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