Auburn Prison Friends Meeting after 30 Years

In 2005 Auburn Prison Quaker Meeting will observe its 30th year of continuous existence. Meeting time is 9-11 a.m. every Saturday, and attendance is typically 20-30 prisoner attenders and 2-3 attenders from the outside world. We meet in the prison chapel. After initial greetings the group settles into silent worship, as it has done for 30 years.

Auburn Prison Friends Meeting is like any other Friends meeting in all fundamental ways. There is the gathering of the spiritual community through shared silent worship. There is the equality of all the worshipers in the yearning for Light and the lifting of doubt that Light provides. There is the joy of seeing familiar, welcoming faces on arrival. The time after worship is spent on business, discussions, and special programs, such as the Dancers of Universal Peace. Once a year the meeting has an all-day picnic in the prison. At this event we see the prisoners with their families, including children and other loved ones. We eat, laugh, sing, and pray together. Big-group pictures are taken and later treasured. It is a thrill to see the prisoners swinging children in the air, chasing them around the yard, and sitting close to their wives and partners. There is a close connection between the prison meeting and the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops that have been held in Auburn Prison regularly since 1976.

Auburn Prison Meeting is not at all like any outside meeting in a multitude of less fundamental ways. Worshipers from the outside world cannot just drop in, on the spur of the moment. In order to attend Auburn Prison Meeting the outsider has to apply to the prison administration, and be supported by a Quaker liaison. Then the person must meet with prison officials so they can explain possible dangers and emphasize the need for responsible behavior. A photo ID badge is needed. In order to be a volunteer, as is required to attend meetings, one must also agree never to visit or correspond with any prisoner anywhere in New York State. This is a difficult decision for many of us, and some Quakers have refused. They are unwilling to break off communication with prisoner friends they’ve met and come to value and respect after worshiping with them for years. In order to worship in prison you must agree not to reveal anything you learn there to the public. Articles, such as this one, must be reviewed by the prison administration before publication. Prisoners cannot attend meeting without permission. They need to apply to the chaplain, and it is not unusual to wait for six months for approval. Once permission is given, it is for a trial period. At the end of the trial period the attender must declare that the Quaker religion is his religion for all intents and purposes as far as the Department of Corrections is concerned. He is then not allowed to attend other religious services in the prison.

Janet Lugo, a Syracuse Meeting Friend, was responsible for initiating the Auburn Prison Worship Group in 1975, the first New York State prison Quaker worship group. Today there are worship groups or meetings in nine New York State prisons. Janet is also responsible for initiating AVP workshops at Auburn Prison. The first one, in 1976, was only the second such workshop held anywhere, the first having been held in Green Haven (NY) State Prison. Today there are typically 15-20 AVP workshops at Auburn each year.

In an article, "Letting Your Life Speak" (Friends Journal, August 1/15, 1976), Janet Lugo explained why prisoners are interested in Quakerism:

But it is the translation of Friends’ belief in "that of God in everyone" into social action that best "speaks to their condition." If Friends sincerely and persistently reach out to them on this level, and if we share with them their struggle for justice, acceptance, and fulfillment as human beings, then they will respond with an interest in the religion that makes us do this. It is a matter of "letting your life speak" in such a way that it can be heard behind the prison walls. And it is a matter of reaching out to work with them, never for them, in every way you can. To work for them is a gratuitous act of charity, in its own way as dehumanizing as the prison system itself. It says that they are too weak, incompetent, and generally far gone to take responsibility for their own lives. The difference can be very subtle, but people in prison are trained to survive by subtleties, and they can easily sense the difference.

The negotiations with the prison administration to arrange the first meeting at Auburn and the ongoing negotiations since have been an exercise in Quaker persuasion and persistence. There would be no Quaker meeting at Auburn if the New York Department of Corrections or the Auburn prison administration strongly opposed it. The outside Quakers were determined that any Quaker worship group in the prison be a real one, with all important practices observed. The administration adapted to the idea that all Quakers were ministers and that the prison could not demand that Quakers hold degrees from religious seminaries. The prison officials eventually accepted the fact that more than one outside Quaker must be admitted to attend the worship. More difficult was our insistence that to exclude women from entering the prison to worship at the Quaker services was unacceptable. We, on the other hand, had to adapt to the harsh rule that we could have no other contact at all with prisoner attenders, no correspondence, no visits, no exchange of small gifts. Indeed this prohibition extends to every prisoner in any New York prison. It is harsh—so harsh that the description is painful for me to express. Try to imagine such a prohibition being placed on you in your relationship with the attenders of your home meeting! No one under the age of 18 is allowed to attend. The discussions in the meeting are supposed to stay on religious topics. It is impossible to strictly observe this rule. We discuss everything, since religion is connected to everything. But on occasion, visiting Quakers have been punished and refused entry for very mild departures from prison rules. That this is the 30th year we have had a Quaker meeting at Auburn is itself an acknowledgement that the Department of Corrections and the Auburn Prison administration have generally been cooperative and professional in dealing with our concerns and the challenges our concerns create. The needs of the meeting are negotiated with the administration by a Quaker liaison person, currently Jill McLellan, and other outside attenders. Over the 30 years the meeting has had liaison representation by a line of strong, gifted, Quaker women, starting with Janet Lugo. We are blessed.

The Quaker tradition of adapting to the spirit, rather than the letter, helped Auburn Meeting in its early days. Two years after the first gathering, the worship group requested preparative meeting status in Farmington-Scipio Regional Meeting. Technically and historically, preparative meeting status has been used for entirely different purposes, so there were good reasons for denying the request. But the new group at Auburn needed the support of a wider group of Quaker meetings. The request was also a wish for acceptance. If the request had been denied, for any reason, the men would have accepted that. Prison life means continually accepting disappointments. On the other hand, approving the request would be a sure sign of acceptance and respect, something the prison group would cherish. Farmington-Scipio Regional Meeting did approve the request and has continued to provide support for 30 years.

Can Quaker decision-making procedures be effective in groups that have had no experience using them? The diversity of the prison meeting is large, and this diversity makes reaching consensus difficult and time-consuming. When the group does reach full consensus on a difficult matter, it is a thrill. It provides powerful evidence that community bonds can be built and maintained when making difficult decisions once everyone accepts the truth that group decisions must be by consensus, rather than by majority. The meeting clerks have always been appointed from among the prisoner attenders, and the new clerks need support and guidance from outside attenders. But the meeting has been blessed with gifted and sincere prisoner clerks from the beginning, providing the warmth and trust needed for spiritual growth to be maintained for 30 years.

The spirit of Auburn Meeting is expressed well in its State of the Meeting report for 2003:

Our Beloved Brothers—Our Beloved Sisters,

Greetings from the Auburn Quaker Meeting! We extend our love and Inner Light of peace to you all. We are always happy to participate and contribute each year to the State of the Society report. We also like to hear from all our friends out there who also share their wonderful and refreshing ideas.

It is always interesting and challenging to address the questions that come out of the State of Meeting, and 2003 was no exception. The question posed, "What measure of growth have you experienced as you have been guided by the spirit last year?" has sparked quite a few responses of growth here at Auburn. The following are the collective thoughts of our group.

We found that although the Orange Alert created numerous State Facility cancellations and shutouts, somewhere between all of this we were still able to enjoy our annual Quaker event and our six-week Quaker study group. We are proud that two needy families received gifts of food and clothing during the Christmas season through our Adopt-a-Family activity with Poplar Ridge Meeting. Some of us found that just coming to our weekly meetings created good feelings. Some of us gained in the area of giving service to others rather than personal reward of recognition. Just seeing others happy was satisfaction enough. The meeting has helped some to become closer to our families. There are those who enjoyed the companionship of others who share the same positive ways. In addition, one can expect good, honest feedback from the group. Some Friends felt uplifted by regular visits from the Dancers of Universal Peace. One Friend really liked the idea that Quakers were not held to any single religious structure and would like to see his outside family involved in the Quaker way of life.

On the other hand, there were suggestions and comments that might be envisioned as areas for improvement. Some of us expressed the need to support each other more; otherwise feelings of hypocrisy invade the group. One Friend felt the need to pull back because inmates didn’t help each other enough. A Friend challenges the group to read at least one query a week; the group accepts the challenge. Another Friend suggested we not tell people things like "You have to . . ." or "You better do this . . . ." Instead we could substitute asking or suggesting. A Friend has a hard time making friends, however coming to meeting has helped. Another felt he was on a spiritual roller coaster. Some of us are learning to accept death in our own way.

Finally, using the words of our own group, we are on a spiritual walk with God, pointing ourselves down a path—staying open and realizing that we are all very important. We are all great and special.

When prisoner attenders are asked what draws them to Quaker meeting, a common reply is that meeting for worship provides a time when it is safe to relax and to drop the prison-yard face and wisecracking conversation. Hopes and plans can be shared without fear of ridicule. The men can acknowledge and explore spiritual beliefs in a safe place. Auburn Prison is a maximum security prison and the prisoner attenders often have long sentences, 20-30 years or even more. Despite this, individuals’ problems and joys arise from their interest in family ties to their children, parents, and wives or partners.

A prison worship group is an oasis of shared spiritual seeking inside prison. But prisons are destructive, hateful, and corrosive to the human spirit. Outside attenders of prison worship groups often despair over their inability to effect even small, obviously sensible improvements in the prison system. Outside Quakers who worship in prison see and hear mainly about the situations of individuals, often individuals they know and respect, rather than an overall picture of crime and society. They see the outcomes of an immoral, unjust system up close.

From any viewing distance, one is aware of the immorality, the injustice, and the ineffectiveness of the prison system in achieving society’s reasonable goals. Is the criminal justice system fair? Everyone knows it is not. Do prisons create better citizens? Certainly not. Are prisons helpful to prisoners seeking redemption? No. Do long prison terms help the victims of crime in their need to move from a state of anger and hurt to one of recovery, restoration, and peace? No, prisons and the criminal justice system only encourage the victim’s inclination for revenge and hate.

Still, both inside and outside attenders observe the basic changes and transformations that can occur in men serving long prison terms. The men who attend Auburn Prison Meeting are changed from the men they were many years ago when they committed their crimes. Prisoners transform themselves through thought, prayer, and practice. It is said that Quaker beliefs are not passed on from generation to generation, but are rediscovered by each one of us. That is the case in the Auburn Prison Meeting. The prisoners who attend are on their own path of spiritual self-discovery, and the meeting provides a safe community of fellow travelers on the path of change. It is a hard path to travel alone.

Worshiping in prison with prisoners reaffirms the Quaker belief that all men and women share the Light; all earnestly wish to bring their lives into accord with their deepest beliefs and best selves. Worshiping with prisoners confirms the fact that every human has the potential to do good, to be a good person. Accepting prisoners as fellow seekers can help us develop more sensible criminal justice and prison policies that will be effective in meeting society’s need for security, while still respecting the humanity and the potential of all men and women.

Edward Stabler

Edward Stabler, a member of Syracuse (N.Y.) Meeting, is a retired professor of Computer Engineering at Syracuse University. He attended the first worship session at Auburn Prison and the first Alternatives to Violence Project workshop there.