I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. (Matt. 25:36)
When it comes to the subject of prison, I must admit my knowledge is peripheral. Years ago I became acquainted with Bob Horton and heard from him many stories about his prison visitation and how it had led him to the founding of Prisoner Visitation and Support. Later, in New York Yearly Meeting at Powell House, I became aware that many Friends were actively involved in the Alternatives to Violence Project, working closely with prisoners. When my children were young, I sought out stories that offered strong female role models and read them several about Elizabeth Fry and her early Quaker work with women prisoners. Then a friend chose significant prison time by defying a judge’s order not to continue praying on the grounds of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant—and I began to learn from her something of the sisterhood on the inside and the institutionally-unintended spiritual benefits of solitary confinement for those with a strong inclination to prayer and reflection.
Last year when we announced our intention to publish a special issue on Friends and Prisons, I knew there would be strong interest in this topic among many Friends. We were unprepared, however, for the vigorous response we received to our request for manuscripts. Thanks to grant money received for this purpose, we are able to bring you this expanded issue—20 pages longer than our regular issues—which has permitted us to cover this topic in greater depth, and to be responsive to the outpouring of offerings we’ve received. In addition to our special funding, we also had the remarkable assistance of five outstanding interns who joined us this past summer. Without the able support of these talented young women, undertaking an issue of this size would have been overwhelming for our editorial department.
As I think back to the stories of my friend Bob Horton and read through the articles included in this issue, I’m struck by the difference just one individual can make for those whose lives are lived in confinement. Among the most striking are the comments of an unnamed inmate at Graterford Prison who spoke at a memorial service for the late Lloyd Bailey, saying, "My whole life was darkness and despair. I heard about this funny, little old white guy who was coming up to the prison and talking to the men. Then I heard more stories, and . . . finally, I decided to sign up for a[n AVP] workshop. . . . Now I am a trainer myself and it has turned my life around from despair to hope. The people in the AVP program and this man . . . have changed my universe." (p. 20)
It would be difficult to summarize the content of this special issue, but I’m pleased to say that we’ve taken care to include the writing and art of prisoners as well as of those who interact closely with them. We’ve included articles that note ways to work with and for those who are incarcerated, that speak to the death penalty and restorative justice, and that suggest societal changes that would greatly reduce the need for prisons. Our table of contents is two pages long this month, and I encourage you to give it your attention before beginning to read this issue.
Darryl Ajani Butler, co-clerk of the Sing Sing Quaker Worship Group, offers a brief but insightful reflection, "The Fountain" (p. 11), and asks the relevant question posed by this special issue: "Isn’t it time for us to change our approach and to care more, to be less selfish, to extend a hand rather than walk on by?" Perhaps reaching out and extending a hand will enable any one of us to change our universe.