A Slow Moving Glacier

Working in partnership with other organizations is a cornerstone of how CFSC operates. We connect with those directly involved or affected by injustices, supporting the needs and initiatives that matter to them. We also consult with a range of experts who help deepen and compliment our work and perspectives. We value these partnerships because, being such a small organization, CFSC couldn’t achieve as much on our own as we do through collaborating with others. Our work on criminal justice and penal abolition is no exception.

One key relationship is our membership in the National Associations Active in Criminal Justice (NAACJ). NAACJ was founded in 1975 to provide a forum for members to share and generate information, ideas, and support.

One of the great values of partnerships like this is the connections that form. NAACJ has introduced me to many people representing much larger organizations than CFSC. At present, there are 18 members including groups like the Canadian Associations of Elizabeth Fry Societies, the John Howard Society of Canada, the Mennonite Central Committee, the Canadian Criminal Justice Association, and the Canadian Bar Association (which represents some 36,000 lawyers, judges, notaries, law teachers and law students from across Canada). While representing CFSC at NAACJ events I have met Members of Parliament, Senators, and Canada’s Correctional Investigator. I have had the chance to share with them about who Quakers are, our testimonies, and to mention our worldwide involvement in penal abolition, for instance through the Quaker United Nations Offices. This gets people’s attention, and usually results in worthwhile discussions.

Over the years NAACJ has built a strong and respected relationship with the federal government of Canada, providing its members with a means to act as catalysts for change within criminal and social justice through its connections to the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), Department of Justice, Department of Public Safety, Office of the Correctional Investigator, and Canadian Senate. This gives CFSC the opportunity to participate in consultations, and to keep abreast with changes to personnel, legislation, regulations, and policy at the federal level.

At the invitation of the CSC, we have participated in some recent consultations, including: changes to the Institutional Mother-Child Program in federal prisons to place a stronger emphasis on maintaining the mother-child bond, enhancements to the Employment and Employability Program to improve services offered throughout an offender’s sentence, and the introduction of the new Structured Intervention Units, which are replacing solitary confinement. I believe that meaningful improvements in these and many other programs happen in part through the persistent work of those involved with NAACJ.

It makes no sense to try to reform a system that is fundamentally wrong. That is why we are abolitionists and not reformers. (For more about a world without prisons see our 2019 handout Alternatives to Prison, which highlights community-based sentences; Restorative Justice; education, employment, and training; addiction and mental health services; Healing Lodges; and what can be done about the “dangerous few”: https://quakerservice.ca/AlternativestoPrison). However, just as Friend Elizabeth Fry visited the women in Newgate Prison in the 1800s, anything that we can do to reach out to those who are incarcerated, any way that we can help improve their situations or influence their conditions of confinement and help plan for their release, is good.

That is why we participate in CSC consultations regarding their policies and procedures. This is another example of promoting Quaker testimonies and values.

At times it is easy to get discouraged and feel that we have made little progress in transforming the justice system since Friend Ruth Morris did this work forty-five years ago. This is when I reflect and realize that many small victories contribute to big change. I really feel that justice reform and penal abolition in particular is like a slow moving glacier with earth changing power. I feel this way because we are right— people should not be put in cages.

I have a personal friend who was incarcerated in federal prison for forty years, from age 18-58. There is a high probability that much of this confinement will be proven to be unlawful. My friend is seeking recognition of this fact. Because of my work with CFSC and NAACJ, I have been able to help connect my friend with various organizations that can support him. Because of my Quaker faith, I have been able to find Inner Light in this person who suffered painful incarceration for so many years.

Years ago, Quakers were imprisoned and even executed when their religious beliefs landed them in conflict with the established “rule of law.” Let us remember that governments are not always right or just. Let us continue this work with our partners to transform Canada’s criminal justice system from one based on punishment to a system that better recognizes the root causes of conflict and directs resources toward healing and toward the elimination of social injustice.

Dick Cotterill, Halifax Meeting, is a member of CFSC’s Criminal Justice program committee.