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Ben Jarman, a Quaker at Westminster Local Meeting, has worked in prisons for years. What has the experience taught him, and how has his Quaker faith shaped his outlook?

What role might prisons play in an ethical criminal justice system? Photo:

I first became interested in prisons eight years ago while working at the Quaker Council for European Affairs. Since then I have done policy research for several charities and managed a volunteer-led service working in 20 different prisons.

Much of that work was with people serving long sentences for serious violent and sexual offences. The harm they have done is often irreparable, and the people who they have harmed are often uninterested by healing or forgiveness, at least for the moment. Where there are also questions about whether they pose further danger to others, it can be difficult to imagine a feasible alternative to imprisonment. Yet in the face of endless dismaying headlines about prisons, it is equally difficult to imagine how imprisoning people can achieve anything other than more harm.

A morally troubling situation

Imprisonment is not a benign experience: even the most rehabilitative or ‘reformed’ prison is a painful place to live, away from the loved ones, status, possessions and comforts of life before prison.

Even so, I have met long-term prisoners who say they found meaning in the experience: achieving new perspectives, changing their behaviour, and finding ways to contribute positively to the lives of others. Often, they could not have foreseen this happening without the initial shock of the conviction and the sentence. They speak of their experience as a necessary evil and are often deeply interested in what it means to live a good life.

For others the sentence offers no such comfort. Prison time represents meaningless suffering, and they can’t imagine that they might need to change – or access the help they need to do so. They are often preoccupied by questions of survival: living day-to-day, suppressing thoughts of the future, and complying not through a concern with ethics but out of a fear of authority.

Room for transition

While I was working in prisons, I became fascinated by the contrasts and the relationships between these two groups. Those who found meaning often describe having moved into it from the survivalist mode, often after moments of personal crisis and profound re-evaluation.

I think transitions like this matter, and that prisons should think more about how to encourage them. If we are to accept that punishment is a necessary evil in some circumstances, then shifts in ethical thinking are surely something to aim for, or the pains of imprisonment are no more than revenge. Prison performance is more than just a matter of reoffending rates: if Quakerism tells us anything, it is that the process matters, as well as the outcome.

Researching the possibility of hope

My work in prisons led me to seek out research. In particular, research by Alison Liebling and her colleagues at the Prison Research Centre in Cambridge grabbed my attention. They measured differences in the ‘moral climate’ of different prisons. In some, power is used to foster an environment where human development is possible. In others, it is misused or not used at all, fostering an environment in which there is no safety. Research shows that prisons with high scores for their ‘moral performance’ also have significantly lower rates of suicide, self-harm and reoffending. They are not perfect, but they are more hopeful.

Research like this got me beyond thinking simplistically about prisons as just bad, harmful places. If some are more hopeful and more survivable for prisoners, then we have to ask why. But how this translates into the experiences of individual prisoners has not been very well-researched.

I have recently started PhD research in Cambridge, which aims to answer some of these questions. The work is jointly funded by Britain Yearly Meeting’s Adult Education Grants programmeand by the Economic and Social Research Council. It aims to examine in depth how long-term prisoners experience the prison environments in which they live, and how that affects the kinds of projects of change that they might take up.

To me as a Quaker, it seems important to ask these questions about how the state’s power is used against its most stigmatised citizens. As a Society, we are used to raising questions about how power is used against people who have committed no criminal offences, such as migrants. We seem to have less to say about how it is used against people who have badly harmed others. It seems to me vital that we take seriously their experiences of punishment: how it feels, and what moral messages they are taking from it.

Follow Ben’s project at Back to Our 

It happens on January 27th.

In the shadows of Viennese royalty and luxury, poverty and starvation.

In the dream, it’s 1777, and a Quaker minister named Scatterwell gets a burning concern to visit the decadent city of Vienna, to preach the gospel of love of God and neighbor. He’s particularly moved by reports of the tens of thousands of poor Austrians and others huddling there in the shadow of the luxuriant indifference of the imperial court.

When Scatterwell arrives in the bustling capital, he heads straight for the nearest low-life tavern, figuring to plunge into the depths and confront the Devil’s work head on.

In the crowded, dark tavern, he spies a young man leaning dejectedly over a big mug of ale, a crumpled sheaf of papers at his elbow.  The youth is clearly trying to get drunk.

An imperial palace in Vienna: extreme opulence

His clothes are out of place in the tavern — they are of a finer cut, though ragged and soiled.

Scatterwell sits at the same table, and tries out his Deutsch. “My friend,” he says gently, “whatever has brought thee to this dreadful place?”

The lad looks up at him. “Ach,” he says. “I’m lucky to be here, rather than in the ditch outside. I’m all alone. My mother just died, I’ve no work, and I’m down to my last few coins. I don’t know what I will do, so I thought  I’d just drink and forget my problems.” He takes a big swig, and wipes his mouth. “It works. For awhile.”

Drinking to forget

“Oh, Friend,” Scatterwell declares, “thee doesn’t have to end it here, or in the mud outside. God has a wonderful  plan for thy life, and for the many other unfortunates that thee can help”

And then, summoning all his earnest eloquence, Scatterwell preaches to the youth of the Universal Saving Light, of Christ’s gracious example and sacrificial life, and how God’s grace and Light can be spread today as it was in the  early church, for this is, in the words of the great Friend William Penn,  the day of Primitive Christianity Revived!

And as the young man listens, his eyes begin to shine, and Scatterwell knows his heart is being reached, his mind convinced. At length, he nods, and says, “Oh yes, my new  Friend, your English accent is strange, but your words ring true. Show me how to join in this wonderful new life.”

Beggars are everywhere, the forgotten castoffs of Empire.

And then Scatterwell shares the burden that he has carried all this way, of concrete help for the many desperate poor of Vienna. He plans to open eine kuchenzuppe, which is the closest he can come to “Soup Kitchen.” His monthly meeting will help them get started, he says, and they will find other supporters as they work.

Scatterwell emphasizes that just a small share of the value of the courtiers’ costly but useless baubles could underwrite their new work, and feed many thousands more.

“Yes,” says the young man, pushing the mug of ale away. “That is so true! Let’s get started right now.”

They both rise, and turn to head for the door. But then the lad spies the forgotten sheaf of papers on the table, and grabs them up, to toss into the fireplace as they pass.

Music, a useless worldly frippery

Scatterwell sees musical notes on them as the flames light up and then consume the sheets. “So much for worldly vanity,” he says with grim satisfaction. “Thy new life will be much more fruitful — er, what did thee say thy name was, Friend?”

The lad replies, “It’s –

And that’s when I wake up screaming.

Because the youth’s name is Wolfgang. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.


Yes, January 27 is Mozart’s birthday. He would have been (and IS, in a real way) 260-plus years old today, give or take.

And the nightmare scenario just recounted haunts me because it brings home how drastically poorer my own life would be, had the musician by some miscarriage undergone the kind of conversion it imagines.

How much difference has it made? There was an underground comic strip back in the Sixties about several disreputable characters called the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. These fellows had a saying, that “Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope.”

For me, tho I enjoyed the Brothers in their time, a truer long-term motto would be, MOZART will get you through times of no money better than MONEY will get you through times of no Mozart!”

And let the church say, “AMEN!”

So  while I am also dedicated to Quakerism, seek to achieve our vaunted “Simplicity,” and admire such missions as that of Friend Scatterwell, I’m sure grateful that neither he, nor any of the Catholic ascetic groups Mozart was more likely to have run into, found and deterred him from his musical course.

It’s also a great relief that Quakerism has finally outgrown (to a large extent), our opposition to such art. (To get a sense of this evolution, see this excellent compilation, “Beyond Uneasy Tolerance,” compiled by Friend Esther Greenleaf Murer.)

angelic theologians & music critics

Not that fulfilling what seems to have been his destiny turned out much better. He kept composing, but his music never brought him much worldly success, and he was carried off before the age of forty, buried in a common pauper’s grave in Vienna.

A couple hundred years later, Austria put Mozart on their 5000 shilling note (now replaced by the Euro), worth about $440. A lot of good it did him.

And that’s My Recurring Quaker Nightmare — Every January 27th  . . . .

Ah well, his genius was about as close to immortality as things human can get. If you’re also a Mozart fan, or just curious, have a listen to this short piece, the Credo from his “Great” mass , K. 427. This is the kind of “creed” even a liberal Quaker can get behind.”

And say farewell to him here; but give thanks that the music survived.

28.01.2019 – Lonodn, UK – Silvia Swinden

Holocaust, genocides: never again! But how?
Holocaust Memorial, Berlin (Image by Alexander Blum • CC BY-SA 4.0)

“International Holocaust Remembrance Day is an international memorial day on 27 January commemorating the tragedy of the Holocaust that occurred during the Second World War. It commemorates the genocide that resulted in the death of an estimated 6 million Jews, 8.7 million Slavs, 1.8 million ethnic Poles, 220,000 Romani people, 250,000 mentally and physically disabled people, 312,000 Serb civilians, 1,900 Jehovah’s Witnesses, and 9,000 homosexual men by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. It was designated by the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 60/7 on 1 November 2005 during the 42nd plenary session. The resolution came after a special session was held earlier that year on 24 January 2005 during which the United Nations General Assembly marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi Concentration camps and the end of the Holocaust. On 27 January 1945, Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration and death camp, was liberated by the Red Army.” In the UK the same date commemorates “genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Dafur.” Wikipedia

In 1969 Silo invited to carry peace in oneself and to carry it to others. Amongst the proposals for nonviolence and reconciliation he encouraged people to find a profound meaning in their lives away from the provisional meanings offered by an increasingly cruel and dehumanised society. Meaning is never something to search for alone, it connects us to other people because as we get in touch with what is profoundly human in us, we recognise it in others.

In this day of Holocaust commemoration here is the voice of Viktor Frankl, who although a survivor of a concentration camp where he lost his most beloved members of his family, he went on to find his own meaning and to share with the world its healing power.

Meaning is the only thing that can liberate humanity from the fear-inducing manipulation of the powerful that makes us follow them, vote for them and listen to their lies in exchange from “security” . Hitler was not the first and certainly we have been able to verify he was not the last. May be the most extreme? Methods are changing, becoming more sofisticated, tanks are replaced by WhatsApp but the end result is the same, millions die and the rich get richer.

If we listen to Frankl, and Silo, and all the guides of Nonviolence and reconciliation, if we realise that in Germany itself, under the hypnotic brainwashing of one of the most efficient evil propaganda machines in history, millions of people remained resistant to it, true to their own meaning, then we will understand the power of this deeply human proposal. We will also understand how people are starting to respond to the new leaders of progressive movements appearing everywhere in spite of the seemingly hopeless situation.

If our hearts are set on compassion we will easily recognise the signs of an impending genocide: growing discrimination of minority groups, scapegoating them for the ills of society, growing cruelty and dehumanisation, fear and mistrust spreading through ordinary people, populist leaders repeating lie after lie about the need of a strong hand to save you and your family, even if that means to kill in cold blood the “undeserving” in society because they are a threat to all. If they manage to scare us, let us not lock our doors and hide under the bed, let’s get out, find our friends, discuss in communities, see through the lies (a TV channel has brought in a “reality testing correspondent”. Bravo!) and the ghost of the next genocide will desintegrarte in shame.

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer

We must act and dare the appropiateness and not whatever comes to our mind not floating in the likelihood but grasp the reality as brave as we can be freedom lies in action not in the absence of mind obedience knows the essence of good and satisfies it, freedom dares to act and returns God the ultimate judgment of what is right and what is wrong, Obedience performs blindly but Freedom is wide awake Freedom wants to know why, Obedience has its hands tied, Freedom is inventive obedient man respects God’s commands and by virtu of his Freedom, he creats new commands. Both Obedience and Freedom come true in responsability (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

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