Plain in the city

A plain Quaker folk singer with a Juris Doctorate in his back pocket, salt in his blood, and a set of currach oars in the closet, Ulleann Pipes under his arm, guitar on his back, Anglo Irish baggage, wandering through New York City ... in constant amaze. Statement of Faithfulness. As a member of the Quaker Bloggers Ad Hoc Committee I affirm that I will be faithful to the Book of Discipline of my Meeting 15th Street Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

I Am Called To Take Up Abolition in America Once Again

Dear Friends:

There are two Friends and friends, who I truly love more than life itself. We differ on the subject of slavery in America and the use of unfair labor in China. Tonight, I find myself not able to sleep, listening to the windchimes of the downstairs neighbors. And rather than cursing their windchimes, I find I am seeking words to convince Friends that we must address the reality of slavery in the USA once again.

Our Meeting's shelter uses sheets cleaned by prison labor. I cannot bring myself to touch those packages marked by the label of the slavery which brings it to our place of worship. Friends tell me that those in prison must have work to do, and that the place to address the slavery of prison is at the source, at the inequality of opportunity which leads to lack of equal access to jobs and easy access to drugs.

And yet, I see in these answers a similarity to the past notion that we lift Africans out of ignorance by ... well ... the "well intentioned kindness practiced on Quaker plantations," as the member of our faith said who once claimed ownership over other humans. Like Elias Hicks, I cannot sway these Friends from their conviction that the product of prison labor is not a convenience which we must afford ourselves and there belief that labor is good and meaningful for the laborer who is not free.

And, yet, Friend Elias' final point on slavery, which won out almost two hundred years ago returns to mind. No human entered slavery other than at the point of a sword or a gun, and so, we Friends who deny ourselves prize goods, cannot own these humans and call our selves Friends and Chlidren of Light.

No human behind bars came to that place, other than at the point of a gun and wearing the chains of the wars of crime and the wars on crime. The simple truth is that the production of the prison system are prize goods and we Friends must not touch them.

For that matter, the production of a nation which murders trade unionists outright, shoots them on the factory floor or drags them away to disappear in lonely secret places where extrajudicial killings silence the voice of labor -- such goods are also prize goods and more than advised against in our Quaker traditions, they are forbidden to our souls in the statement of our Peace Testimony.

Let others make war, and let others constructively engage the slave state. I can endorse the inroads, but I cannot touch the product stained with the blood of victims of the savagery of war and slavery.


At 8:16 AM, Blogger ash said...

Is not the point of a penitentiary to help those who have committed crimes to become reformed persons? And do not the protestants believe that hard work is good for the soul?

In Britain, those in Gaol do not do work other than work that keeps the gaol running, like cooking etc. I wonder if doing work for the outside community wouldn't help them feel a part of the world they are separated from? It's all too easy to close the gates and forget about prisoners. Perhaps they and we need to be reminded that they exist.

At 5:22 PM, Blogger Lorcan said...

Hi Ash:
As you might know, we Quakers invented the penitentiary, then apologized for the error. We don't have convicts work for the outside world. Rather, we use prison labor to break unions, to enrich the private corporations which own our prisons, and serve the Pharaoh. If the work they did inside made for them a resume to get work outside, that might be what you suggest. But, when a prisoner is released he or she is released to unemployment.
All the best,

At 8:58 AM, Blogger earthfreak (Pam) said...


Well said.

I used to think that prison labor made sense, because, I suppose, that I used to think that prisoners were paid minimum wage at least - with a chance to build up resources to help them upon release - and even that it might help them build skills to aid in finding employment in the outside world.

Were this the case, it probably would make sense, but as thee points out, it is really only about making more money for the wealthy off the backs of the poor.

But I wonder how thee even knows that prison labor is used? It feels so hidden in my world.

At 6:03 PM, Blogger ash said...

Lor, thanks for the clarification. I didn't know the system worked like that.

At 8:15 PM, Blogger cherice said...

Not buying things that are made using de facto slavery (even if it can be explained away as something else) is something I really want to work on--but it seems so fuzzy. How do we know where stuff comes from? Is there a list somewhere that shows companies that are OK to buy from?

I don't know much about the prison system, but your point seems true to me--I guess I also always thought (along with Pam) that prisoners were paid for the work they do. If they aren't, it seems like we should not support that system by buying what it produces.

I'm a little less sure about what we should do about prisons in general. That's a hard line for me, for us as Quakers, I think. We (at least in America) rely on the police to keep us safe, whether we like to admit it or not. Most American Quakers, I would imagine, think of prison as something that is unfortunate but necessary--we need a place to put criminals so they can't hurt others.

The problem is, as you say, when those who are not really criminals, or those who were more or less "forced" into criminality by an unequal socio-economic situation, are put in prison.

How do you suggest we proceed from here? How can we as Friends start standing up against this kind of injustice?

At 8:20 AM, Anonymous mark said...

I am only familiar with the federal prison system, so some of my comments may not apply to state prisons.

While able-bodied prisoners in the federal system are expected to work, they have some level of choice as to which jobs they choose. The highest-paying ones (highest being a relative term when we are talking about wages at less than $0.40/hr.) are usually in the factory jobs, and there is a long waiting list for them. There are fewer of these jobs now, because most government agencies are no longer required to consider prison-made products (furniture, for example).

I am not clear that ending prison labor is the right course. I think they should get fair wages and better working conditions, however. And it would be better to reduce the availability of prison labor by working to improve social conditions, reduce recidivism by providing better opportunities after release(the 2nd-chance act was a step in the right direction), and also revising sentencing. I am not clear that prisons are unnecessary, but I think their focus should be more on helping prisoners improve themselves, and not just as a hole that we dump people into.

There was an interesting article from the Progressive Policy Institute that advocated more prison labor, with some additional reforms such as fair wages. I'm not too familiar with PPI, but what they recommended seems fair.


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