Prison Worship

by Edward Stabler 
Syracuse Meeting


In the late 1960’s the news was filled with stories of the Freedom Riders and the restaurant sit-ins. I saw people who looked like me behaving in ways that made me weep with shame.


In 1971 incarcerated men at the Attica State Prison demanded better living conditions, more humane conditions, and political rights. Their demands included improved prison health care with additional medical personnel, legal representation at parole board hearings, expanded visiting facilities, greater access to publications including educational and current media, and an option for a no-pork diet. Quakers hold up a testimony of peace, value all human life, and would have liked to have witnessed a peaceful solution. There were negotiations and it seemed a settlement would be reached. Unfortunately, the negotiations turned violent and over 40 people died. We still mourn their loss.


So, in 1974 I jumped at the chance to attend Quaker worship inside the walls of Auburn Prison.


How did this happen? One woman, Janet Lugo of Syracuse Friends Meeting, read in the newspaper that Native Americans in prison were required to wear their hair cut short. It seemed a small thing, but for Native Americans hair length has religious significance. She got really, really angry about this bullying by the State. The New York State constitution says prison inmates retain all their religious rights. Before restricting a religious practice, the State must show that allowing the practice will endanger security and safety in the prison. Of course, such a claim would be ridiculous when the supposed danger was hair length.


Now Janet was energized. OK, she thought, “What about the religious rights of Quakers in prison?” She didn’t know of any Quakers in prison, but she had quite a few Native Americans friends at this point. Soon there were about a dozen men in Auburn Prison who said they wanted to worship in the manner of Quakers. They wanted silent worship, in which all worshippers participated as equals. With no priest or minister appointed by the state.


There were long negotiations with the Department of Correctional Services (DOCS). One sticking point was that the Quakers insisted that women be allowed to attend the worship. But once again, the State was unable to show that the mere fact of a woman worshipping in prison constituted a security threat. Reasonable rules were developed for woman worshippers and negotiations went forward.


Why did the Quakers insist on the participation of women? We were not trying to be difficult. Women are important! Look around you at any Quaker worship service. Women bring essential gifts and energy to our worship, to family, to society, and to everything Quakers value.


Another problem was our insistence that Quakers from outside had to be allowed to join the worship in prison. DOCS hires chaplains to serve the prisoners religious needs, but Quakers have no chaplains, nor anything similar. The Quaker negotiators agreed to provide a contact person and agreed that outsiders wishing to attend Quaker Worship in prison would register for the privilege, would undergo a brief training, and use a picture ID provided by the prison.


Let me say at this point, that I respect the DOCS representatives. You had the impression that they themselves were trapped, by an elaborate, often paranoid web of regulations. They were somewhat sympathetic but could not say so. This is understandable, and unfortunate. Prison officials are often criticized by people who want prisons to be all punishment and no humanity. Prison officials and guards are imprisoned too.


At the first Quaker worship inside Auburn Prison there were about 12 prisoners and a similar number from the outside. We could see a 30-foot-high wall out the window. After a very brief description of Quaker worship we began. There were helpful messages from both outside and inside worshipers. I remember a prisoner telling us, “the wall doesn’t seem as high as it was yesterday.”


After some years, the Auburn Prison Worship group asked the Farmington-Scipio Regional Meeting (FSRM) to allow it to become a Preparative Meeting under its care. This was unusual. The men at Auburn had never attended an outside Meeting for Worship. But after much discussion, the Regional Meeting agreed to the change.   Friends responded tenderly to this unusual request, confident of the sincerity and devotion of the petitioners.


Men in prison are unused to requests being granted. Acceptance of this request was a strong signal to prisoner worshippers of their significance and worth.


Afterwards many members of FSRM helped sustain Quaker worship at Auburn Prison. Several Auburn Prison attenders became full members of Syracuse, Poplar Ridge, and Ithaca Friends Meetings.


Our Meetings for Worship were usually on Saturday. After silent worship we got to know each other, and occasionally had visitors. FSRM Quakers attended regularly.


Each summer there was an outdoor party with music, food and, importantly, the prisoners’ families, including children. Oh, Happy Day!  It was so wonderful to see the men sitting close to wives and partners, and to see them playing with their children.


I attended Quaker worship in Auburn prison for 35 years. This worship experience shaped me and helped me deeply. Thank you, thank you, Janet Lugo and fellow Auburn worshipers!


My advice to all who read this is: find a way to attend Quaker Worship in prison.


Do Quaker worship practices succeed in prison? Indeed, they do!