Reaching out to Prisoners

To introduce the Quaker Spiritual Friends program of the Advancement and Outreach Committee of Friends General Conference to the larger Quaker community, here is a letter that I sent to a Quaker lifer who wanted to know why it had taken seven years to have a Spiritual Friend assigned to him.

Dear Friend,

You asked why it took seven years. As a Quaker you ought to know that it takes Quakers forever to do the seemingly simplest of tasks! To wit, over the previous ten years I have been the sole responder to all those who answered ads about Quakerism that FGC had placed in national magazines including an offer of free pamphlets and other information about Friends to those inquiring. As I responded to more and more inquiries I noticed that the responders included a goodly number of prisoners. This observation led me to make the assumption that some of these requests arose from genuine interest in, and curiosity about, Quakerism—which was the purpose of the ads. But, based on the tone of some of the other letters, I made an additional assumption that some writers were terribly lonely and sought contact with someone outside the prison who would have a different perspective than those they were living with on a daily basis. The ad we ran said:

Are you a Friend (Quaker) without knowing it? Do you seek a religion encouraging a direct spiritual and mystical relationship with the Divine, compatible with science, and accepting continuing revelation? Are you concerned with peace, justice, reconciliation, environment? And with education, and respect for diversity? Write for free booklet to: [etc.]

Another factor that stimulated my growing awareness and developing concern was that some of us were trying to establish a regular meeting for worship at a nearby county jail. The jail was not cooperative, and when we tried to get local Friends to attend and support the meeting for worship, many felt that they could not participate. These Friends feared they would be at personal risk, since they lived near the prison which served inmates who were from nearby communities. That someone might look up the meeting-visitors after release and do them harm seemed such a possibility to the residents of a Quaker retirement home that none joined us on our regular Friday evening worship.

When these two problems became obvious—the needs of prisoners and the hesitations of outsiders—I sought viable paths to address my original concern. At first on a one-on-one basis, I tried to interest other Friends, especially older ones, who might not have the energy, desire, or even inclination to do personal prison visitation but who might wish to reach out to inmates. It seemed that I could develop a program that would permit them to write from a "secured address." This approach and implementation process took considerable time. It involved talking to many f/Friends on an informal basis and trying to arouse their interest and ideas on how to implement such a program for which I saw both tremendous need and opportunities. It could be helpful for those who wished to do something but felt unable to participate in existing programs and reach out to those who were crying for contact. Finally I found a f/Friend willing to put time and thought into implementing a program. He had been supported as a released Friend to work in the county prison and said he would help. We then were able to proceed to get both backing and financial support.

This was done by going to the Advancement and Outreach Committee of Friends General Conference (on which I serve) and asking them to be the clearinghouse and "safe" address for the correspondents. Once approved by A&O, Quaker Spiritual Friends could go to a Quaker funding source and receive money so that the expenses of the program would not come out of A&O’s limited budget. As a result of this footwork, the Quaker Spiritual Friends became an official program of A&O and FGC.

To make the program known, we advertised both within FGC and to all Friends through Friends Journal. Contacts were made with 48 Quaker retirement homes across the country. Those Friends who have participated have found this new relationship through correspondence to be rewarding and the prisoners have expressed enthusiasm. One prisoner expressed amazement and appreciation to his correspondent who he said "was the only person from ‘outside’ who remembered his birthday."

The final part of this long tale is that, as the chief mail receiver for Quaker Universalist Fellowship, I did indeed receive your letter seven years ago. Your plea for a Quaker correspondent stimulated me even more to continue to slog on and try to make this program a functioning reality! My hope is that this answer to your bewilderment might result in new awareness of and interest in Quaker Spiritual Friends. Through the prison grapevines, the inmates have spread the word of our program and its benefits. This success has given us the names of some 30 or so new prisoner requests. These requests have been vetted, and we hope to be able to assign Spiritual Friends soon!

In Friendship,

Friends General Conference Advancement and Outreach Committee offers a description of the Quaker Spiritual Friends Program and the opportunity for Quaker volunteering. To request the free pamphlet Quaker Spiritual Friends for Prisoners for yourself, or several to share with your meeting, write to FGC, 1216 Arch St., 2B, Philadelphia, PA 19107.