Quaker Guilt & Unintended Consequences

Quakers, the religious sect with which I most closely identify, have a long history of radical action. Historically, Quakers were leaders in the American abolitionist movement and adherents have long been allies of black liberation, womens’ rights, and other social justice struggles. Today, that tradition continues, with many meetings (the equivalent of a congregation) explicitly supporting Black Lives Matter efforts, prison abolition, and the end of the drug war. Some of this is just historic contingency, but it’s also rooted in the central principles of Quaker thought. There are two main tenets in the tradition: to be welcoming (friendly) to all, and the idea that everyone has a connection to divinity. To this end, there’s little to no congregational hierarchy and, in a sense, everyone is a minister.

This is all very laudable and I’m proud to be involved in a tradition that’s so committed to direct action, social justice, and non-hierarchical organization. But even such deeply justice-oriented traditions make mistakes, and Quaker commitment to prison abolition in the current age is driven in part by guilt over such mistakes. After all, it was Quakers who invented the modern prison system.

Particularly egregious was their inclusion of solitary confinement as a key aspect of prisoner “rehabilitation.” At the time, it was considered a liberatory idea. As Brooke Shelby Biggs relates in Mother Jones, this is where we get the term “penitentiary”:

Between Philadelphia and New York, a schism in philosophies emerged: The Philadelphia system used isolation and total silence as a means to control, punish, and rehabilitate inmates; the Auburn or “congregate” system—although still requiring total silence—permitted inmates to mingle, but only while working at hard labor. At Walnut Street, each cell block had 16 one-man cells. In the wing known as the “Penitentiary House,” inmates spent all day every day in their cells. Felons would serve their entire sentences in isolation, not just as punishment, but as an opportunity to seek forgiveness from God. It was a revolutionary idea—no penal method had ever before considered that criminals might be reformed. In 1829, Quakers and Anglicans expanded on the idea born at Walnut Street, constructing a prison called Eastern State Penitentiary, which was made up entirely of solitary cells along corridors that radiated out from a central guard area. At Eastern State, every day of every sentence was carried out primarily in solitude, though the law required the warden to visit each prisoner daily and prisoners were able to see reverends and guards. The theory had it that the solitude would bring penitence; thus the prison—now abandoned—gave our language the term “penitentiary.”

Eastern State still stands and is open as a museum today. While the Quakers thought they were building a more humane approach to criminality, the terrifyingly stark cells, panoptic central guard tower, and tiny windows show the facility for what it really was: a new form of torture.

Michel Foucault’s work on social discipline and the prison system outlines how insidious such “humanitarian” reforms can be and how efforts like this have simply made torture less visible, rather than eliminating it. In Discipline and Punish we get this analysis:

Similarly, the hold on the body did not entirely disappear in the mid-nineteenth century. Punishment had no doubt ceased to be centred on torture as a technique of pain; it assumed as its principal object loss of wealth or rights. But a punishment like forced labour or even imprisonment — mere loss of liberty — has never functioned without a certain additional element of punishment that certainly concerns the body itself: rationing of food, sexual deprivation, corporal punishment, solitary confinement. Are these the unintentional, but inevitable, consequence of imprisonment? In fact, in its most explicit practices, imprisonment has always involved a certain degree of physical pain. The criticism that was often levelled at the penitentiary system in the early nineteenth century (imprisonment is not a sufficient punishment: prisoners are less hungry, less cold, less deprived in general than many poor people or even workers) suggests a postulate that was never explicitly denied: it is just that a condemned man should suffer physically more than other men. It is difficult to dissociate punishment from additional physical pain. What would a non-corporal punishment be?

There remains, therefore, a trace of ‘torture’ in the modern mechanisms of criminal justice — a trace that has not been entirely overcome, but which is enveloped, increasingly, by the non-corporal nature of the penal system.

It used to be the case that the “criminal” was punished bodily: hanged, or beat, or made to do hard labor. Today, the torture takes a primarily psychological form. Of course, imprisoned people still face corporal punishment, beatings, and other bodily harm. But these injustices tend to be somewhat sidelined in modern prison revolts. The biggest concern for many incarcerated people — from those behind the Pelican Bay revolts to the currently ongoing prison strike — is the use of solitary confinement and other forms of isolation and division.

There’s something particularly horrible about division and isolation. Humans are social beings, and separating someone from the rest of humanity has been shown to do significant psychological harm. It goes beyond solitary too.

Prison administrations take care to sow division among incarcerated people, sometimes using tactics known as “gang enhancement” to encourage in-fighting and create uncertainty. Furthermore, prisons are placed far away from population centers and obstacles to visitation and contact are constantly increasing. For political prisoners, being cut off from outside communication is a common tactic of repression. I’ll never forget the time I was speaking with an incarcerated acquaintance and he asked me to please tell folks on the outside what prison conditions were really like. In one phrase he summarized a main tactic for prison abolition: “If folks outside could see the way we live, they wouldn’t allow this to continue.”

He’s right. Most people have moral intuitions that leave them repulsed at the way incarcerated people are treated, especially with regard to isolation and division. And so, many Quakers are dedicated prison abolitionists because we feel an immense guilt over the role we played in developing this horrific system that tortures through isolation.

As we head into the final days of a nationwide prison strike, it’s important to remember this history. As prison abolitionists, we have to be very careful about the reforms we propose and support. What might look like a reasonable stepping-stone position to a non-carceral society might end up causing more harm than good.

Private prisons are another great example. Many libertarians supported or support private prisons in theory, assuming that a corporation would run prisons more efficiently and with higher quality than the state. This was supposed to lead to better treatment for incarcerated people — maybe better food, and more efficient grievance processes. Like charter schools in relation to public schools. The actual result, of course, was an explosion in prison slave labor, even more horrible conditions, and increased lobbying for more prisons and harsher sentences.

Public choice theory is illuminating here. When thinking about the incentives at work in institutional contexts, we need to ask who has a vested interest in what. Since the companies running “private” prisons have to win contracts from the government and are paid on a per-prisoner basis, of course they’re going to lobby to put more people behind bars. If they were instead paid according to their ability to say reduce recidivism, or improve prisoner health, we’d see much different outcomes.  

There are tons of examples of policies (often reformist ones) that look great on paper, but cause more harm in the end. The recent investigations into “Ban the Box” efforts, which showed that such policies increase racial disparity in hiring are just another example. Ban the Box laws prohibit employers from inquiring about an applicant’s criminal history during the hiring process — either until a final offer is being made, or for part of the process. One intention of these laws is to address racial disparities in hiring that could result from racial disparities in criminalization. But racism is a persistent evil and seems to be having an even worse effect where Ban the Box is in place.

While this should give us pause, there are plenty of criminal justice reform positions that do have a good chance of alleviating suffering while we work toward the eventual goal of prison abolition. We just need to be careful about how we support and evaluate these positions.

Some particularly good and well vetted proposals are included in the current list of strikers’ demands:

  1. Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.
  2. An immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.
  3. The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.
  4. The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole. No human shall be sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole.
  5. An immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and brown humans. Black humans shall no longer be denied parole because the victim of the crime was white, which is a particular problem in southern states.
  6. An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and brown humans.
  7. No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender.
  8. State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services.
  9. Pell grants must be reinstated in all US states and territories.
  10. The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called “ex-felons” must be counted. Representation is demanded. All voices count!

These are just a few of the ways that prison life can be somewhat improved for the time being — and some folks’ chances of escaping this system can be increased.

In the long-run, however, nothing is going to do the work of actually creating a non-carceral society but actually doing it. So this is a warning, but it’s also a call to action. We shouldn’t rest until we’ve achieved the ultimate goal of ending carceral institutions entirely. Anything short of that is just reorganizing suffering.

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