Image credit: William Waltzman
In 1981, Canadian Quakers became the first religious body to call for the abolishment of prison. At Canadian Yearly Meeting in session, Friends adopted a minute (PDF) that stated in part:
The prison system is both a cause and a result of violence and social injustice. Throughout history, the majority of prisoners have been powerless and oppressed. We are increasingly clear that the imprisonment of human beings, like their enslavement, is inherently immoral, and is as destructive to the cagers as to the caged.
Prison abolition is both a process and a long-term goal. In the interim, there is a great need for Friends to reach out to and to support all those affected: guards, prisoners, victims and families.
The minute also recognized “a need for restraint of those few who are exhibiting dangerous behaviour” but called for the restraint to be humane.
CFSC’s current criminal justice work arises from a vision of “penal abolition” (PDF)—seeking to eliminate the punitive mindset that pervades society and justice systems. Penal abolition acknowledges that the harm caused by prisons results from the systemic focus on punishment. Changing this mindset means transforming harmful approaches to ones that are healing.
The term “penal” originates from the Latin and Greek words for punishment, and to “punish” is to cause suffering. It is the suffering inherent in the justice system that Quakers wish to abolish—for victims, perpetrators, institutional staff, families, and communities.
Revenge (PDF, pages 3 and 5) an article from the Winter 2016 issue of CFSC’s newsletter Quaker Concern, examines the roots of the concept of vengeance and how this continues in our modern criminal justice system. For more information on penal abolition, see our documents From Harm to Healing: Transforming the Justice System and Alternatives to Prison (PDF).
Transformative justice uses the power unleashed by the harm of a crime to let those most affected find truly creative, healing solutions. Transformative justice includes victims, offenders, their families, and their communities, and invites them to use the past to dream and create a better future.
~ Ruth Morris in Stories of Transformative Justice (2000)
CFSC supports Restorative Justice and rehabilitative practices as an alternative to prisons and a punitive criminal justice system. Restorative Justice acknowledges that criminal behaviour causes community harm to victims, communities, and also offenders. Rather than punishing an offender, CFSC encourages the use of practices that focus on healing and restoring community balance, including structural injustices that lead to crime and inequality.
For decades we have been active in supporting Restorative Justice initiatives such as the Alternatives to Violence Project, Circles of Support and Accountability, and volunteering in local prisons. For instance, here is Toronto Friend Keith Maddock talking about his experience volunteering for 20 years in the Don Prison in Toronto:
CFSC also engages in education and policy work in Restorative Justice through our partnerships with the National Associations Active in Criminal Justice, the Church Council on Justice and Corrections, the Canadian Criminal Justice Association, the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children, the Canadian Families and Corrections Network and the Collaborating Centre for Prison Health and Education at the University of British Columbia.
Penal abolition workshops
CFSC hosts informal workshops on penal abolition and how to engage in criminal justice issues. We aim to work with people to better understand the justice system in Canada, how our beliefs lead to penal abolition, what this means, and how we can envision alternatives to prisons. If you are interested in CFSC conducting a workshop for you, please contact us.
More online resources
Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP)
Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies
Canadian Centre for Victims of Crime
Canadian Families and Corrections Network
Centre for Crime and Justice Studies
Church Council on Justice and Corrections
Collaborating Centre for Prison Health and Education
International Centre for Prison Studies
International Conference on Penal Abolition
National Associations Active in Criminal Justice
No On Prison Expansion/#NOPE Initiative
Office of the Correctional Investigator
Penal Reform International
Quaker United Nations Office
Smart Justice Network of Canada
The John Howard Society of Canada
The Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice