“I believe in silence and cherish silence, like most of us who worship,” says Ruth Brelsford. “However, I would say that silence that is chosen is very different than silence that is enforced.” In this episode of QuakerSpeak, Ruth reflects on her work with the incarcerated—many of whom find their voices taken from them because “society doesn’t want to listen.”
This month’s Friends Journal includes an essay by Ruth about teaching creative writing at Oklahoma’s Jackie Brannon Correctional Center, which she described briefly in our interview: “It has, I think, been helpful to them in terms of communication skills and addressing their lives and looking back at their lives and being honest with themselves, and it’s been really wonderful for me because I’ve learned a lot.”
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I have struggled with silence and believe in silence and cherish silence like most of us who worship. However, I would say that silence that is chosen is very different than silence that is enforced.
Quaker Worship, Incarceration, and the Meaning of Silence
My name is Ruth Brelsford and I live in Southeastern Oklahoma outside of a little town called Red Oak. I attend Kiamichi Worship Group with several other couples, and we are under the guidance of Green Country Quaker Meeting in Tulsa.
Teaching in Prison
About 12 years ago I was asked to teach classes in the local minimum security facility here in Oklahoma, right outside of Mcalester, OK. And so I did and while I was there I realized that these young men weren’t that different than the young men I was teaching 35-miles away at the junior college where I taught. They were very similar. We’ve had many many men coming through that class and it has, I think, been helpful to them in terms of communication skills and addressing their lives and looking back at their lives and being honest with themselves, and it’s been really wonderful for me because I’ve learned a lot.
Isolation and Silence
When we were asked to stay home I thought about the men in my class who have written about being in isolation. I thought, I remembered, I looked up some of the writings that they had given me and one that I remembered very well was a man who said “once you’re there, you’re never the same. You leave a part of yourself in the cell.”
I remembered walking through Eastern State Penitentiary outside of Philadelphia that some people may recognize as being the first kind of– it was reform prison that Quakers were involved in the planning of it, and the idea was that these men and women who had committed crimes, if they could just sit in silence and do work (like hand work – like fixing shoes and things), and read their bible and think about their crimes, they would be reformed. And I remember walking through and I remembered it was the most horrible place I have ever been on this earth. The silence was oppressive.
Chosen vs. Enforced Silence
I do ponder for those of us who cherish the silence, when silence is enforced… Whether that is because society doesn’t want to listen to you– so the men that I’m talking about in prison — yes, most of them spend time in the hole. They don’t have to be a terribly hardened criminal to get put away, put in a cell by themselves for a while, but the difference is that they are also silent in that the world doesn’t really want to listen to them. So the question being how do we reconcile all of this? I don’t know, I don’t know, but one of the things that I know can happen and there are many people who have written about it– who have spent years and years and years in cells and come out still sane in some kind of way and then released to talk about that.
- 1) How do Friends reconcile the peacefulness of chosen silence with the potential negatives of enforced silence? Is there a way to empower those who have silence forced upon them, and if so, how?
- 2) What are the Quaker relationships with prisons? How do we think about historical relationships and modern relationships, and what have we learned? What are we doing now?
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.