What we can do about prisons

She hired the killing of her husband, admits she did so for molesting their daughter.  She regrets.   She owns responsibility for the pain she has inflicted on others.  She has served more than three decades of a seventy-five year sentence and has become a senior prisoner in one of our prisons.  And the prospects for parole remain distant.

This case raises questions.  The hired killer received a twenty-five year sentence and has been released.  But she remains behind bars.  If prisons are designed for the public safety, what danger does this elderly woman pose to us?  If our Department of Corrections is designed to work corrections or to achieve rehabilitation, what purpose is there in locking up this person who owns her responsibility, expresses regret, and poses little likelihood of killing another?  The answers may come with careful review.  But there is no agency in the state government that is asking these questions.  Her case is not subject to review.

The Illinois legislature is considering a bill (HB 3668) that focuses on the growing number of prisoners who are over fifty years old and have served more than twenty-five years.  This modest reform proposes the establishment of a procedure by which such inmates could petition for parole.  The bill is judiciously couched.  Victims would be notified of the petition and be given the opportunity to respond.  The review board might modify the sentence if it is satisfied that the prisoner presents no threat to the public safety.  Moreover, the board would be authorized to set conditions for release such as wearing an electronic monitoring device and doing public service.

This carefully considered legislation affects a small but growing population in our prisons.   One prisoner, for example, serves a life sentence without parole.  He killed while under the influence of PCP.    Although not a suspect, he was so overcome by guilt that he turned himself into the police.  He has served twenty-nine years and at age fifty-two is designated an elderly prisoner.   Again, no one in the state prison system is authorized to ask whether this person is a danger to us or whether he is fit to return to society.

By writing to our state lawmakers, each of us can help to work change so that these questions can be asked and the sentences of elderly prisoners can be reviewed.   This proposed legislation is a small but important step toward working change.  When we consider our prison system, for example the sentencing practices, we may feel overwhelmed by the scale of the problem.    That immensity may numb imaginations and cripple our ability to act.   We may ask: what can I with my limited time and resources do to work a change in this prison system.  Many of us may be concerned but are restrained by limited resources.  We might not be able to attend a rally in Springfield or lobby lawmakers in the state capital.   No matter such limitations, we can write our local lawmakers, talk to friends, or write out local newspapers.

Such actions are important not just because they will lead to passage of this modest piece of legislation but because they contribute to a growing movement calling for changes in the way we think about our prison system and how we will behave in the future.   The campaign to close the maximum security prisoner at Tamms illustrated the broader concern about our prisons.  Closing Tamms illustrated the effectiveness’ of concerned citizens.  We are also awakening to the need for “ban the box” legislation that eliminates the requirement that released prisoners when applying for a job check the box that they were convicted felons and thereby closes opportunity for successful re-entry into society.   Our fellow citizens are awakening to the need for revising sentencing procedures.  That Michele Alexander’s The new Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness was on the New York Times bestseller list for several weeks testifies to the significance of this issue in our society.  (For more on HB3668 and work in Illinois on our prisons, go to Changing Minds Campaign at illinoisinstitute.net/index.html)

A conscience driven movement has arisen.

Within these several movements broader question emerge.  At stake is not only the prisoners without hope but our collective identity as a society.

While emphasizing the need for people to take responsibility for their actions, we have emphasized punishment—stern punishment.   But what has happened to the simple proposition that people can change, can become better?   While addressing the need for public safety, have we forgotten the possibility of reconciliation and restoration to society?  Have we allowed fear and the rhetoric of punishment to overcome us?  Are we making ourselves into a punishing society?  We are asking these questions in different ways.  In so doing we are looking to large changes in the culture.  This will take time.

We are asking that question in different ways.  Changing the way we think or returning to the proposition that the wrong doer can change will take time.  Supporting HB 3668 is a small step.  The bill can be passed.  And by taking action, no matter how small, each of contributes significantly to invigorating the larger movement for justice tempered by compassion.


Torture and a step to respond

Torture is practiced in national and state governments.  This we know.  What we need to know is how we can respond to this horror.  The Quaker Initiative Against Torture (QUIT) and the National Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) help us to address this question.

Looking at torture is risky business.  It moves us to thinking about the unthinkable.  With the pictures from Abu Ghraib, we shed the illusion that torture was something done by people in the past or that it was done by other people.  Today we are learning that torture cannot be considered an isolated or aberrant act.   Realizing that torture is practiced in our backyards, in our prisons, not just in black holes in some unknown places overseas, may inform but also may overwhelm us.  What can be done?  Realizing that torture includes not only water boarding but solitary confinement for months and years may teach us how pervasive and varied this practice is.  Listening to public servants speak as if they are not sure that water boarding is torture warns us how pervasive and acceptable the justifications for torture have become in this culture.  But still we ask what can be done.

Left unanswered this question forces good people to sink into resignation.  And this is why QUIT and NRCAT are important.

Acting for the sake of the tortured may not be the only reason for supporting QUIT and NRCAT.   Today we are coming to a place where the unthinkable continues to force itself upon us.   Denial and evasion offer refuge; the mechanisms are readily provided us.  But denial costs us too.  What am I saying when I say that torture is there in all its manifestations but that is the way the world works?  We may grasp for justifications: our public servants protect us by torturing people; torture for some is a small price to pay so that we can sleep soundly; torture isn’t so bad if it does not leave permanent physical damage.  But the justifications fall short of justification.  Inevitably beneath the rationalizations questions remain to haunt us.  What kind of world do we create for ourselves and our children when we accept torture as a part of our lives?  Once we accepted and justified child abuse as necessary for the child’s welfare.  We don’t any more.  We can remember good citizens in another place and recent time who retreated from the horrors before them by pretending ignorance.  But pretending may mean knowing somewhere in our consciousness.  Can we allow torture by proxy without damaging ourselves?

And this is why supporting QUIT and NRCAT may be important for our good health.  By supporting these two groups, we do so not only for the faceless, nameless person in orange suit in Springfield or in Guantanamo.   We do it for ourselves and for our children.   Friends meetings, including  Chicago’s 57th Street, have joined with a broad spectrum of faith groups to endorse NRCAT.  The times call for others to face this crisis of conscience openly

Those seeking more information may wish go to: http://www.quit-torture-now.org/quit/home/ or  http://www.nrcat.org/

Are we asking the wrong question? (Drones Part Two)

A query in search of words.

“My son is a soldier in Afghanistan. If a drone will protect my child from harm, so be it.”

​I listened and I trembled inside. The parent spoke at a public lecture critical of our government’s use of drones. For a few moments a stillness settled on the room. I do not take the parent’s statement as rebuttal to the speaker. Rather, I remember it as an implicit question: how do I reconcile my concern for my child with criticism of government behavior?

​For that moment we stood on common ground: the speaker, members of the audience, the parent, and myself. Discussion stopped. In the stillness I felt this common ground slipping from beneath us. And after a few heartbeats, the room was filled with words about legalities, disclosure, and accountability.

I continue to reflect on that moment, remembering that I have, as many of us have, witnessed similar moments since the days of Vietnam. During those five decades we have seen these moments repeated when shared concern, even skepticism, about a foreign venture is deflected. Whatever the defects in the policy, we hear that we need to support our children in uniform or that our security requires that certain prices be paid.

When the parent spoke, how might I have responded? I remain uncertain. While analytical arguments about political systems and cultural values and about complexities of effective dissent provide necessary perspective, that talk seems insufficient by itself to address this question in search of the right words. After all the talk about constitutional questions, this place may remain barely explored. The parent’s response silences criticism of state policy. And criticism of state behavior often evades the parent’s question. The answer lies somewhere beyond the question: do I stop the drones or do I support our loved ones?

And so I feel drawn to this still point in time. At once I empathize with the parent and remain no less convinced that the drones are wrong. Moreover as a parent I know that these killing machines kill children over there. Today a parent in Afghanistan may be saying that if it were not for the drone, he would be having dinner with his daughter.

Sometimes we tell ourselves that we are asking the wrong question. Today I do not know the words for my question. Yet I feel it necessary to continue searching. I feel so when I stand at my community’s Saturday peace vigil and meet neighbors who are friendly to the dream of peace but conditioned to be fearful for their security. Again, the problem is posed as a choice between either peace or war with little ground between. Repeatedly though in different ways, I feel common ground slip away. Perhaps a first step may be taken simply by taking a deep breath and not stepping out of that still place.

Good work is being done that may enable us to sit in that still place between seeming opposites or irreconcilables for a bit loner. Last year neighbors in my community gathered in groups to read and discuss Karen Armstrong’s “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life” and the Charter for Compassion project. That discussion continues in several forms including the Nonviolent Carbondale project. Parker Palmer comes to this place in his “Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit”. And Living Room Conversations works to bridge political division.

​I am imagining a long process of undoing deep habits of thought that we share and that stymie our imaginations. But the wars have been going on for a long time, so long that we may simply call it The War. Learning the facts and calling for disclosure of government behaviors informs the discussion. But I wonder. The facts alone about drones or other policies once disclosed may not mean that they bring us forward. Intellect helps, no doubt, to address recurring concerns. Yet intellect alone may remain stymied, as it was that evening, without union with compassion and listening. Perhaps then we can work with that parent.

Drones fulfill the dream that opposition at home will be deterred (Drones Part One)

If the United States government had drones during the Vietnam war, would it have stayed in Vietnam?

“​What-if” questions may cause us to roll our eyes with impatience. But this one offers perspective on the significance of the current controversy over the drones. The question leads to another: why did the United States abandon its Southeast Asian venture? One answer lies in the public protests that pressed our officials in Washington to bring the troops home. In some way protest was sparked by the draft and the steady increase in American dead. There were other reasons, but these are two good places to begin.

​The Vietnam catastrophe taught government leaders important lessons. First, avoid a draft. Second, avoid foreign adventures that disturb voters to ask provocative questions and that undermine support for their leaders. Thus the government fights in the Middle East without a draft and with volunteers. Large sectors of the public are not affected directly. Yet the volunteers do die. And public concern remains as long as young Americans return home in coffins. And so at first the government attempted to prevent photography of the coffins.

​If policy makers pursue overseas adventures that require shedding blood and wish at the same time to shield Americans from the human consequences, then mechanized warfare is the answer. Machines do the fighting. American soldiers are less likely to be put in danger. Thus the deterrent to pursuing a violent foreign policy is diminished. The military in Vietnam invested in technologies for this end but did not succeed. Drones represent the fulfillment of that dream.

​Today’s discussion of the drones is, however, distracted by attention to questions of transparency and accountability. These are important questions. But if demands for transparency and for accountability were satisfied, even completely, would we be addressing underlying questions: should our government use such instruments of death so that it can meddle in the lives of other peoples and do its meddling by violence?

Such questions were being asked during the Vietnam War. To tell the story of the anti-war movement by focusing on the draft and dying Americans is to tell a portion of the story. Consciences were pricked by the photograph of the little girl running naked, screaming in terror from her village that had been turned to a blazing inferno by American forces. They were numbed by the photographs of the dead women and children at My Lai. And this rousing of conscience was also part of the story that roused an opposition.

Questions about the drones that focus on constitutional issues of accountability, while important, do not yet bring us to the human costs that are daily being paid by families in the Middle East. We do not yet see the photographs. Perhaps we do not because of the nature of this war. But we know enough to know that children and parents live in daily terror of these unknown instruments that descend from the sky. They see the mangled bodies.

And so there are continuities between Vietnam and Afghanistan. The continuities are traced easily when we look at the objectives of policy makers to wage wars that appear bloodless. Other continuities seem less obvious but are implicit and call for revived attention. These are the moral questions that guided a significant portion of the opponents of the Vietnam carnage. They focus on the children like that Vietnamese child fleeing her village in terror. How then will we address these enduring questions? This task will require far more sensitivity and wisdom than is needed to answer the constitutional questions. The answers will not emerge from documents pried from government agencies. They may come as we look within ourselves and learn to talk with our neighbors.

Next: Part Two – ways that meetings might attend to this issue.

Creating a Peace Budget

You are invited to a special meeting on forming a peace budget hosted by the Southern Illinois Peace Coalition and Southern Illinois Quaker Meeting –

Shaping a More Peaceful and Just Federal Budget:
A Conversation with Friends Committee on National Legislation Staff Katherine Philipson

Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 6:30 pm

Carbondale Civic Center Room 111

Starting at the end of February 2013, current law called the Budget Control Act automatically cuts both human needs programs and planned Pentagon growth. Members of Congress are talking with each other now about whether or not to reverse those cuts and how to curb the deficit instead. Our solution is simple don’t balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable. Instead, reduce planned Pentagon spending by $1 trillion over ten years and restore lost tax revenue.

As a leader in the Democratic Party and the new Chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, Senator Durbin is one of the most influential members of Congress on this issue. When budget deals are reached, Senator Durbin is sure to be in the room. Please join Katherine to plan how we can encourage Senator Durbin to reduce unnecessary Pentagon spending and reinvest in true human security.

Sponsored by the Peace Coalition of Southern Illinois.

What next? Tamms is closed.

What next?  Tamms is closed.  Now how do we attend to the climate of opinion that permitted, indeed endorsed, the construction of this institution?  Specifically, what steps can we take to reverse the programs and policies that characterize this nation’s penal systems?

Wrestling with the “what next” question has been far more difficult than coming to a position on closing Tamms.  I think my difficulty is one shared by others in my Meeting and in the general public.  And that is why I write.  I also write so that I may call attention to some responses to the “what next” question that are emerging as I listen to discussions among Friends in southern Illinois.

Shaping a Minute in support of closing Tamms drew attention to the larger and more complicated dimensions to this subject.  As I recall the process, many Friends expressed concerns that the discussion was being framed by Springfield’s concerns for budgets.  What about the penal system at large?  How is it that we pay our taxes to support systems of punishment rather than programs for rehabilitation?   By addressing the debate on closing Tamms, are we distracted from the grim statistics that point to the continuing presence of race and class in the sentencing process?   And so, after a month of careful listening, the Meeting did come to a minute supporting closure but with the provision that a second Minute be composed that addressed the larger contexts.

Lest we forget the thousands of prisoners in countless prisons, we have been working on that second Minute.  We are not done.  We work slowly not simply because of Quaker process but because of the complexity and the immensity of the subject.

Immensity and complexity seemed to numb imagination at the point of addressing the “what next” question.   To speak to the strident voices of retribution and to counter the political clout of the prison industry looms up as a labor of Herculean proportions.  Many of us have asked ourselves what talents we may offer or how much time and energy we are able to devote to such an undertaking.   As I listen, I sense that the discussion is shaped in part by images of a hero peacemaker who comes to task with extraordinary energies and focused devotion.  But have we been measuring ourselves by impossible standards?  Are we handicapped by such an ideal of the peacemaker that causes many of us to feel inadequate to the task?   In various ways, we are asking that question and coming to recognize such models of peacemaker are as likely to discourage as they are to inspire.  We seem to be asking another question: Who amongst us is not a peacemaker?  As we come to recognize the varieties of peacemakers in our small circle, we may be finding ways to help one another to move from faith and principle to practice.

Meanwhile, we are beginning to recognize specific works that are appropriate to this meeting’s size.  The Carbondale chapter of the The Three R’s Project—Reading Reduces Recidivism (www.3rsproject.org)—has been working to acquire books and transport them to regional prisons.  The handful of volunteers needs more people to collect, catalog, and move books to prisoners.  As Friends listened to a 3Rs organizer, they awakened to a path leading out of the shadow of doubt.  We are still aware of our limited abilities.  But we are exploring connections with other community groups.

Seeking for connections opens other answers to the  “what next” question.  By participating in the movement to close Tamms, we came to appreciate at a personal level how many others were concerned.   We were entering into a larger community of compassion.  With Tamms behind us, we are also learning more about the good work performed by Friends elsewhere who are addressing the prison system.  Farther north in Illinois, Quakers have been visiting prisons and bringing books.  The example and the guidance of Friends in Champaign may be helpful not only for practical reasons but, equally important, for renewing faith that we are not alone in our resolve to meet the immense and complex challenge of the prison system.

The times tremble with possibility.  If we listen carefully, we can hear a growing chorus of voices echoing our concern.  Look for a moment at Friends Journal and the recent issue (March 2012) devoted to our prisons.  If we look beyond our Meeting, we see that we are part of a larger awakening.  Consider for a moment Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.  This thorough and impassioned analysis has been praised for stimulating awareness of this long-festering disease.  And it has stimulated.  But by giving credit to Alexander’s work, do we forget that before the book appeared so many people were prepared to attend to her voice and to buy her book?  Alexander was not crying in the wilderness.  There were people ready to listen.  The buyers and the readers testify to the books significance.

What next?  I can only begin to imagine how the growing number of awakened souls in the nation will turn their concerns into practice.  But I think my experience in a small community at the very bottom of Illinois can inform.  While southern Illinoisans deliberated on Tamms, all the action seemed to be happening far north, 150 miles north in Springfield or another 150 miles farther north in Chicago.  I often felt as if we were on the periphery.  When asking the “what next” question, we might turn attention from the centers of power and attend to ways to support uncounted others who live in seeming isolation.  Lest such communities lose heart in the face of enormity and complexity, we might consider creating organization and  communication networks to sustain us all.  The struggle will be a long one.  This we all understand.  We will need to keep faith.  And we will need to organize our scattered communities into concerted energy.  What next?  This may be the emerging task of such groups as the ILYM Peace Resources Committee.

Searching for a peacemaker: Jane Addams

Last winter Hull House shut its doors.

The closing of Jane Addams’ experiment in peacemaking haunts my thoughts, even while attending to the immediate issues of supermax prisons and of drones dropping from the skies on unsuspecting families.  Little public notice seems to have been given this closing.  Are we forgetting Jane Addams?  Somehow, I am feeling that remembering our peacemakers, not just Addams but so many others in our communities, is vital to our civic lives.  Addams teaches what it means to live the life of a peacemaker.

One time, she taught me by her works as a builder of institutions and a doer of good deeds.  Twenty Years at Hull House remains a classic in our peacemaking tradition.  In time I have found myself attending to the less pronounced, often illusive, facets of her interior life where I think I glimpse meanings in her calling as peacemaker.   Her connections with Quakers, while seemingly incidental, are revealing.  Although her father forsook the Quaker meeting for the Presbyterian church and she kept her father’s faith, Jane felt an affinity with Friends in particular by way of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.  And yet on reflection she chose not to become a Quaker.  This Quaker connection, however tenuous it may seem, points to common sensibilities that guide the lives of peacemakers no matter their specific faith affiliation.

Respectful listening, patient reflection, and quiet courage—these habits of mind shaped her calling.  While guided by her beloved father’s principle of service, she came to wonder whether the truths she had learned from a privileged, Protestant, and Anglo-Saxon childhood could guide her work with poor, Eastern-European, and Catholic immigrants.  Or could those inherited verities, for example the explanation for poverty’s causes, carry the patronizing attitudes of the missionary?  As she listened to her new neighbors, she turned inward.  Sometimes the work was difficult.  While bearing witness against racial violence, she listened to painful lessons from her associates who reminded her that she too harbored racist attitudes similar to those that sparked the lyncher.   Democracy, she came to see, was something larger than legal forms guaranteeing the citizen’s rights.  It lay in the ability to listen to others, to reflect, and to realize that the truths passed down from past generations could easily become impediments to service in the present.  This quiet habit of listening, of opening oneself to others’ voices, and of reflection led Addams through long years of evolution.

As I read Newer Ideals of Peace, I discover a quiet courage to challenge the conventional and to risk the unconventional.  Writing at midcourse in her thinking, she was reconsidering time honored truths and unquestioned patterns of authority.  Reverence for the Founding Fathers and their constitution might blind oneself to the changing times and to needs once unimagined.  Prescriptive truths, as if written in stone, work to prevent the democracy from attending to different voices in the neighborhood.   Truth is unfolding.   Each generation finds it in the changing contexts of community life.  Militarism, she speculated, becomes more than the application of organized force but a manifestation of pervasive authoritarian impulses deeply embedded in the culture.  Militarism, she ventured to propose, included habits of mind that twisted relations with neighbors as well as with peoples abroad.  As she wrote, she sometimes stumbled in her effort to fashion new vocabularies to guide her thinking.  Yet she continued and in her steadfast, patient, spiritual quest demonstrated a remarkable and exemplary resolve and courage.  Later in life, as she watched the flapper generation of the 1920s, she felt bewildered, even troubled.  But she advised her associates to attend to young people and to beware imposing verities on them lest creative thought be stifled.

And so we return to Addams and the Quakers.   The affinity seems to run deeper than her public work against militarism.  It reveals itself in habits of  listening and reflection, of attending to truth emerging from the present, and of reconsidering prescriptions inherited by generations past.  Let me return to what seems contradiction: her affinity with the Society of Friends and her hesitancy to join that circle.   Clearness came to her when she was asked how public association with Quakers might affect her relationship with her neighbors—Catholic, Jew, Eastern Orthodox—in the Hull House community.  Would she create distances and stifle her ability to speak with them?

And so I ask myself: how do we understand peacemaking?  Is the peacemaker identified by the deeds well done?   A resume such as of Jane Addams would meet that standard.   Founder of Hull House, charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, outspoken opponent of the First World War, leading light in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom—her works earned her a worldwide reputation in the peace community.  Her persistence is also worthy of recognition.   While vilified for resistance to American entrance into the Great War and branded “the most dangerous woman in America,” she continued steadfast, though sometimes disheartened, to her calling.

But what if she had not done these deeds?   Is her inner quest for understanding the way to peace worthy of notice?  With this question I find myself turning to Rufus Jones and his reflections on the spiritual life.  Sometimes, he counseled, we are tempted to look to spiritual heroics, inspiring moments, for example and guidance.   Yet by so doing we overlook the quiet searchers.  We cannot all be Saul on the Road to Damascus.  Nor can many of us be a George Fox atop Pendle Hill.   Those dazzling moments may distract us from attending to the less visible, less eye catching, workers for peace.  And so who is the peacemaker?   To paraphrase William James who deeply admired Addams’ Newer Ideals and who inspired Jones’ writing we need to be alert to the varieties of the peacemaking experience.

Finally–remembering seems important for peacemaking.  This is why I am concerned that Jane Addams may be forgotten, even by today’s workers for peace.   Peacemaking can be lonely work, as Addams felt.   Forgetting can cut the young witness for peace adrift in time without a sense of an anchoring tradition and without awareness of others who endured and thereby teach and invigorate by example.  To be aware of a tradition of people who persevered and, perhaps most important, lived fulfilled lives may be essential to maintaining that spirit.   The drones will continue to kill, prisoners in our midst will be mistreated.  And continuing to keep courage may come, in part, from stopping to remember.

Tamms is a violation of human rights.

Few of us have visited the maximum-security prison at Tamms. On occasion, and rarely so, we read about the treatment inflicted upon our fellow human beings within those walls and are summoned to consider the incomprehensible that could not be committed without our tax money. Some of us have spoken out and worked to remedy the situation, often without success. Now hope is revived that the governor will take the initiative to close Tamms.

But because closing is framed as a budgetary measure, we may be distracted from deep issues that will persist regardless of the outcome. Tamms is a violation of human rights. But the human community is coming to embrace another human right—that is, the right to be gainfully employed.

Unfortunately the state budget crisis frames the closing in a way that pits principles against one another and thereby deflects from considering the multiple dimensions of human rights. Moreover, finances turn our attention from deep abiding concerns.  First, is the question a matter of what we can afford? Or might the question turn on the purpose of prisons. Do we create prisons to rehabilitate people so that they can realize their God-given potential, even a portion of their potential? Or by creating places like Tamms that simply seek to lock away people do we let go that belief in the light of humanity that dwells within us all? Second, what about the guards? What does it mean for our fellow citizens to work in such environments? Third, what do we do to ourselves when we perpetuate, even if by proxy, such a culture of violence?  Or what is the difference between paying taxes for violence overseas and for violence at home? Fourth, what kind of economy do we perpetuate by using our resources in ways that work such corrosive affects on prisoners and guards alike.

First, what does it mean to systematically put one of our fellow creatures into nearly absolute isolation so that they often go mad? Are these people also God’s creatures? Or do we by way of our proxies—courts and guards—read them out of the human community? Are we to abandon belief in the universal light? Once prisons were designed to restore people to society. Even the first advocates of absolute isolation believed they were leading inmates on the path to redemption. Today isolation is employed simply for the purpose of control and for what appears to be deep punitive urges.

Second, the people who work as guards are acting as our proxies by way of our tax dollars. We pay them to work in conditions that affect them as well. And thus I become concerned that we are responsible for what we pay them to do. I have taught in minimum and maximum security prisons and have found that the grimmer the environment the grimmer the guards. I have seen former students go to war overseas, return emotionally broken, and then sign on as guards. The pattern of violence against the self by way of substance abuse, family violence, and suicide that is found among military veterans is reproduced in guards.

Third, prisons are as isolated as military bases and both are built on cultures of violence. We have come to learn that our torturers overseas depend on isolation as a method to break down the individual, sometimes irretrievably. And now we learn that the same principles of isolation are applied to prisoners. As we come to see these connections and their implications, we enter the risky territory of complicity. Yes, this is complicity by proxy. Nonetheless, it remains complicity. What do we do to ourselves when we know and then abdicate responsibility? Is it just the prisoners or the guards who are harmed? Such knowing complicity carries responsibility.

Fourth, what kind of economy are we creating? As part of the human community, we are coming to recognize the right to gainful employment. But when employment includes jobs that violate another’s human rights, have we made a mockery of that ideal? What path do we find ourselves travelling when we compare employment by way of public works such as the Civilian Conservation Corps with employment by locking another person out of the human community? Is it possible that instead of pitting the interests of prisoners against the interests of the guards, we can realize that when we speak of the rights to jobs we mean the quality of work performed? As one economists asked, can we make an economy “as if people mattered”—for guards, for prisoners, and for all of us God’s creatures?

Whatever the outcome of this discussion over Tamms, this moment may teach us to look beyond the immediate budget sheets and toward a long-term process of reflection and creative thought. Can we allow our prisons to slip from sight without damage to ourselves? This path promises to be longer that the road to the governor’s office. Can we do otherwise than take a first step?

And so I support the closing of Tamms. And I realize that closing may not be enough.

A Letter To Other Occupiers by Staughton Lynd

On Tuesday, February 28, 2012 author Staughton Lynd published a letter to explore the role of consensus decision-making and nonviolence in building a community of trust. Upon reading it, Friend David Finke asked that Peace Resources Committee publish a link here, writing: “Staughton is prophetic, and we must help get this message out, I believe.”

Click here to read the letter in full, which addresses:

I – Every local Occupy movement of which I am aware has begun to explore the terrain beyond the downtown public square, asking, what is to be done next?

II – Here, in brief, is the history that I pray we will not repeat.

III – Although I am concerned that small groups in the Occupy Movement may contribute to unnecessary violence in Chicago, it is not violence as such that most worries me.

IV – So what do I recommend? I am eighty-two and no longer able to practice some of what I preach, but for what they may be worth, here are some responses to that question.

What are your thoughts about the Occupy Movement’s next steps? Are you an active supporter? What do you think this movement has to gain from consensus decision-making and nonviolence in building a community of trust?

Sitting with my Muslim neighbors

Author: Michael Batinski

The light that illumines our lives sometimes comes upon us by surprise.  I have felt such moments while sitting with my Muslim neighbors in an Islam Study Group.  After discussing the prophets including Mohammed and Jesus, we seemed led to an essential concern.  What, we asked, is prayer?  The question quickly moved us from a description of Muslim practice to a discussion of its significance in the believer’s life.

As I listened and as we shared our thoughts—Muslim and non-Muslim alike–I could not but think of Friends practice that seemed at first so different.  And as I listened I wondered at what seemed to be shared experiential groundings.  I could hear echoes of Thomas Kelly’s Testament of Devotion, especially his discussion of “The Light Within.”  I inquired cautiously by offering these observations in the hope that my thoughts would lead to thoughts on the significance of prescribed times for prayer in one’s daily life.  The answers, in turn, led me to return to Quaker practice, this time with a quickened awareness of the universalist voice among Friends.

Each Wednesday, we have been gathering—Muslim and non-Muslim together.  With each week’s passing I became aware that good work was being done in this circle.  The work hinged in part on raising understanding of the message of Islam.  Certainly, I came to this circle aware of my ignorance.  Christians like myself acquired an education that ignored and still does ignore the Muslim world, its historical experiences and its religious traditions.  Perhaps most of us knew in one way or another that Muslims, Christians, and Jews share a common tradition under the tent of Abraham that Karen Armstrong explores so well.  The study group provides opportunity to stand on that common ground.  With each week that understanding has been growing in different ways among us.  I sensed that deeper understanding grows for Christians like myself not simply from acquiring more information.  Understanding becomes deeper sometimes with a smile of recognition, sometimes with a humorous comment.

As  I reflect on the past year, I am encouraged by the continuous good work undertaken by my neighbors.  This study group emerged out of the twenty-four hour Quran reading held last fall at the Carbondale Interfaith Center.  That experience had led neighbors from both the Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic faith traditions to seek for ways to move from a single event to continuous programs for developing interfaith understandings.  Among the several interfaith activities that have been emerging—communal dinners, for example—were discussion groups such as the one led by teachers from the local mosque.   Christian and Muslim, African, Middle Eastern, and American Muslims, a Christian preparing to convert to Islam, students from the campus Reserve Officer Training program were listening, probing, and pondering.

With each meeting, the group has explored new territory.  One day while we were talking about the Quran as foundation text, I wondered about mysticism in Islam.  The African teacher beamed at once and began to talk about the great Muslim mystics.  While he talked, I felt the circle gather closer.  The closeness emerges from the simple joyful excitement that the Muslim teachers shared with their Christian friends.  At the end of each meeting I walk away confirmed that Quaker traditions of universalism have been revealed in quiet practice.

I am encouraged.