The prison system in the United States is a cruel warehousing institution that neither rehabilitates nor protects society. Millions of individuals are imprisoned—many in conditions that would besmirch any human rights report. Quakers work for reform of this system, either through visitation, Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) training, or encouraging our legislators to do away with the death penalty. But what if we are called upon by the state to be cogs in the penal system?
Two years ago, I was called for jury duty for the first time in 60-odd years. I took the summons seriously and appeared at the D.C. Superior Court at the appointed hour. After checking in, I took my seat in the jurors’ lounge, where we watched a video on the court process and waited for our names to be called. After several hours, the clerk read off a list of potential jurors, and we followed her into a courtroom. The defendant, charged with murder, sat with his lawyer and an armed bailiff behind him. The court clerk handed out a form on which we were to indicate if we knew the defendant or his family, the victim or his family, or had any other particular reasons not to be selected as a juror.
I suppose I should have worried about the moral implications of being a juror before, but—as with so many other things—it hadn’t occurred to me. But here it was. If I voted to convict the young man, he would be sent to prison for 20 to 30 years. I checked the block that indicated some sort of problem, and wrote next to it, "Religious reservations." After a half hour, I was called in to meet the judge, the prosecuting attorney, and the defense attorney. They were a friendly, listening group, and I explained my position: our prisons are reprehensible, and I couldn’t participate in sending anyone there until they were vastly improved. "But you wouldn’t be sending anyone there," said the judge, "That’s my job." "But," I replied, "You can’t do it unless I give you permission as a juror." He nodded his head and dismissed me from the jury. The clerk outside said that I was excused from any jury duty for the next two years.
When friends asked me about my jury duty and I told them what I had done, there were two reactions: first, outrage that I had failed to perform my civic duty; and second, congratulations that I had found a smart way to avoid jury duty. "Wish I’d thought of that!" I heard.
But a short time ago, I was again called for jury duty, this time a grand jury. Is this any different, I wondered? I wouldn’t be determining people’s guilt and allowing the judge to sentence them. But it is the same, because my vote for indictment means that someone does have to stand trial, and if convicted, go to prison. It’s all part of the same chain. The clerk of the court asked if anyone had reservations, I expressed them, and was excused. This time my friends were even more outraged that I had failed to perform my civic duty, because the grand jury was even further removed from prison; they thought I was just using my supposed moral qualms to avoid doing my duty.
Friends have often refused to participate in what they see as immoral government actions. Certainly, I refused the draft 45 years ago. Others refuse to pay taxes to show their abhorrence of our military and its actions, and I did the same during the Vietnam War. On the other hand, I’ve never abstained from voting, because I think it’s a good way for citizens to show how they feel about their government. In fact, I’ve worked for the government for 45 years. Am I wholesale against our system of justice? No, because by and large I think it works pretty well. Would I willingly serve on a common pleas jury dealing with a lawsuit? I think so, because it doesn’t involve incarcerating my neighbors. But prisons are something else.
What is clear to me is that I’m not allowed to take this exemption from jury duty and then not do anything about our penal system. I’ve visited prisoners in about 20 jails worldwide, and that’s part of carrying out Jesus’ great commandment. In the past, I helped abolish the death penalty in my home state, West Virginia. "But what have you done for me lately?" I can hear Jesus say. Friends have had concerns about prisons for a long time, with Elizabeth Fry’s great work in women’s prisons being our exemplar. So, more prison visitation, AVP training, and work with legislators certainly seems to be in my future.
A year or two ago, two young men who couldn’t have been more than 16 held me up at gunpoint. I felt my heart go out to them as I tried to understand why they were committing this act, which was a sure road to death or prison. In a second or two they were gone, and a few days later the police asked me to identify them from a group of photos. I couldn’t because I didn’t see their likeness. I still wonder if I would have identified them if I had recognized them, because I know the awful consequences. But I don’t want them to continue robbing people on the street. It’s a moral quandary, and one that we need to keep thinking about. There is a lot of work necessary in our society if we are to avoid adversarial hatred and revenge, and come to the Kingdom of God.