Few issues have gripped political attention in the United States in recent years more forcefully than this month’s theme. A seemingly endless parade of cell phone videos has captured agonizing images of policing gone wrong. The racial underpinnings of so many of these incidents is undeniable. The sight of a White Minneapolis cop—hand in pocket, sunglasses casually propped on his forehead—cavalierly pressing the life out of George Floyd with his knee over almost nine minutes of video is horrific. How can an incident like this happen? How can similar horrors continue to happen in seemingly every news cycle?
Policing and mass incarceration have become another fault line dividing us in these most polarizing of times. On the nation’s lawns, yard signs declaring “Black Lives Matter” compete with those urging passersby to “Back the Blue.”
Bestselling books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist have educated us on the grim statistics of our systemically racist prison and justice institutions. Many meetings have chosen to display “Black Lives Matter” banners. In April, Friends Journal published a much-discussed piece from Friend Lucy Duncan, “A Quaker Call to Abolition and Creation.”
This month’s selection of articles continues this exploration along three axes: prison ministries, justice stories, and advocacy.
Friends have been involved in prisons since the earliest days of the movement (back when we were first getting arrested for our beliefs), but today we’re more likely to be involved in prison education programs and worship groups—some of which include incarcerated Friends. Ruth Askew Brelsford, who describes herself as a “very small gray-haired lady,” leads a creative writing workshop in a prison. Carol Pauli looks at the 40-year history of Mary Cadbury’s involvement with prison worship groups in New York State, and Judy Meikle follows with an innovative program to keep Friends inside and outside prisons spiritually connected despite the obstacles. Prison ministry is not showy, but it always impresses me as containing an extraordinary spiritual depth and the kind of everyday grit, bravery, joy, and perseverance that Friends are known for.
We have a few stories from within the justice system: one from Heather Lavelle, an incarcerated woman in a Pennsylvania prison who clings to the hope of a change in her sentence of life without parole. The other article is an interview with Jim Moreno, a Quaker lawyer working on death penalty cases.
And then: a look at the policies that have created these situations. In Maryland, a small reading group took up Michele Alexander’s challenge to do something and became the catalyst for a state-wide justice reform coalition. Friend José Santos Woss, of Friends Committee on National Legislation, shares how Friends can act to overcome some of the injustices in our system. Mike Clarke points out cases when policing is needed and asks us to become more active in policing reform efforts.
Together these articles are part of a long conversation. We invite you to join it, by commenting on our website, writing a letter to the Forum, or even writing articles for future issues. We would love to read them!