Early Quakers spent quite a lot of time in gaol. George Fox was imprisoned many times, and so were many others. Sometimes conditions were, apparently, reasonable. At other times they were very difficult. We have accounts of Fox in Derby gaol in 1651 and his refusal of a captaincy in the army, following which he was moved from relatively comfortable imprisonment to the dungeons.
The gaol at Lancaster castle, were many Quakers were imprisoned, can still be visited. The tour guide may agree to shut you in a cell for a minute. It is dark and crowded and unpleasant, even when you are locked in, as I was, with some of your best friends and a prison chaplain.
Quakers were imprisoned for a variety of reasons including: refusal to pay tithes; refusal to swear oaths (an imprisonable offence at the time and one they all committed when brought before the court, making imprisonment inevitable if they came to court); meeting together in groups exceeding five (a law having been passed that expressly forbade such gatherings except in church).
A famous story tells how the children of Reading meeting kept the Meeting for Worship when all the adults had been imprisoned for meeting together. An account of a similar incident in Bristol tells how the children were beaten by the local officers of the law for doing likewise.
I have been interested to learn of some Quakers at the same period who were held in slavery in Algiers. Despite being held in slavery they were allowed to keep their meetings, at a time when Friends in England were being locked up for worshipping together. Quaker slaves were apparently popular with they owners being hard-working and sober. Some were Quakers before being seized by pirates and sold into slavery, but others became Quakers during their enslavement.
The sufferings of those in prison and the need that was felt to record this and to do what was possible to relieve the suffering led to the formation of ‘Meeting for Sufferings’ initially for this purpose. Meeting for Sufferings continues to meet regularly, acting on behalf of Britain Yearly Meeting between Yearly Meeting sessions. Occasionally it still has to record Friends imprisoned for acting in faith, often for non-violent direct action against weapons on mass destruction.
This ongoing contact with prisons seems to be one of the factors that has led Quakers to work for prison reform. Elizabeth Fry’s work with women prisoners is well known, but there were many others. In the present day we have Quaker chaplains in many prisons and Quakers who are prison visitors. Meetings for Worship are held regularly in prisons across the country. Another recent piece of work has been ‘Circles of support and Accountability’, a scheme for released sex offenders aimed at reducing re-offending rates. It has been acknowledged a success by the Home Office and is now an independent charity ‘Circles’. Also valuable is the work of Bob Johnson, Consultant Psychiatrist in the Special Unit in Parkhurst Prison, Isle of Wight, UK, from 1991 to 1996, who has shown how effective more humane treatment of prisoners is in reducing re-offending. Unfortunately the authorities have not been convinced to follow this pattern.