Peaceful prisons: the Quakers and Leap

Elizabeth Fry visiting a prison
Thursday 11th January 2018

Leap Confronting Conflict began life over 30 years ago as part of The Leaveners, a Quaker community arts organisation that provided creative opportunities to communities until its closure earlier this year. Then called Leaveners Experimental Arts for Peace (L.E.A.P), the project was founded as witness to the Quaker peace testimony. There are four testimonies by which Quakers strive to live their lives:

  • Peace
  • Equality
  • Truth
  • Simplicity

Although Leap broke away from the Leaveners in 1998 and now exists as an independent secular charity, this commitment to peace still runs through the core of Leap’s work, and in particular in the projects we carry out with young people in prison.

I joined Leap in September 2017 as part of the Quaker-Peaceworker-scheme which places people (not just Quakers) looking to start a career that works towards peace within peacebuilding organisations. Often these are assumed to be organisations working internationally to prevent war and violence but when reading about Leap, I was immediately drawn to the opportunity to work for peace on more of a grassroots level through involvement with the Peaceful Prisons Project.

Although Leap has worked in prisons for over 20 years, this is a new pilot project which aims to reduce violence and create a more peaceful culture on prison wings. This involves using a range of drama and discussion techniques to train all prisoners and staff to understand their own relationship to conflict. Specifically, this involves looking at what behaviours might trigger them in conflict situations and developing the communication skills necessary to manage these moments in non-violent ways. Following this, we will develop a range of focus groups and community circles in which both prisoners and staff can manage conflicts which arise on the wing and design the changes they’d like to make for a more peaceful environment. As someone who has always been interested in the criminal justice system and who strongly believes that prisons should be a place for rehabilitation in a safe and respectful environment, this project is a really exciting opportunity.

As a Quaker, it is hard for me to separate this interest from the long history of Quaker involvement in prison reform. Perhaps most famous is the work of Elizabeth Fry, who in the early 19th century became a pioneer for prison reform. She set up schools for children imprisoned with their mothers, introduced skills classes for female prisoners and fiercely campaigned for the rights of those incarcerated across the country, demanding that prisons be a place of rehabilitation, not harsh punishment. Such was her influence that until recently you will have seen her face looking up at you from the back of your five pound note. However, she is just one of many Quakers who have dedicated their lives to this sort of work. Driving them forwards are not just the testimonies of peace and equality, but also a belief that there is that bit of ‘God’ or, as I and many other Quakers would say, ‘Good’ in everyone.

It is this belief that every person has something positive within them, that they have capacity for change and that they deserve to be treated with humanity that also appears to be at the heart of Leap’s work with young people, both within the secure estate and the wider community. Throughout my time on the Peaceful Prisons Project, I have been inspired by the amount of people working relentlessly towards harnessing these qualities and creating a more peaceful culture in what is often a challenging environment. Although, like with any work of this nature, it does not come without its frustrations, I am incredibly excited to see where this project leads and how it can continue the legacy of the work carried out by both Quakers and Leap in this ever important field.

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