Before I knew anything of Friends as a faith community, I had heard of their efforts to promote peace and social justice in the world. This reputation is what drew me to a Quaker meeting in early 2005, when my husband and I began to worship at Manasquan Monthly Meeting.

At this point I had already been volunteering in prisons for a few years, not knowing the Quaker word for “leading” but surely feeling one. Later I learned that Friends had a long history of working to improve prison conditions, dating back to the 17th century, when many Friends were arrested and persecuted for their faith.

Although I have done several kinds of volunteer work with prisoners, the most meaningful has been my involvement with the Alternatives to Violence Project. This Quaker initiative involves experiential workshops that teach people how to deal with conflict in their lives in non-violent ways. In 2009 I became coordinator of the New Jersey branch of the organization. We regularly hold workshops at the Garden State Youth Correctional Facility.

Volunteering with inmates has made me aware of the intense mental and physical anguish that takes place in prisons. Our politicians and mass media encourage us to see incarcerated people as demons or savages who need to be cast out of society and brutally treated if the rest of us are to be safe. This view has led to the widespread growth of prison construction in the U.S. and our nation’s current status as the world’s biggest jailer.

But God gives us the capacity to see these men and women differently, as tormented people who are capable of growth and redemption. I do not mean to diminish the wrongs the prisoners may have done; often, they have caused grave harm, and have seriously hurt others as well as themselves. But God offers them the same constant opportunity for grace and redemption that he offers us all. And despite their suffering, some incarcerated men and women do find themselves changing, growing and experiencing remorse while imprisoned. By affirming the worth of these incarcerated lives, prison volunteers like me hope to play a role in eventually reconciling inmates with their communities and society and healing the pain that crime and punishment both cause.

Matthew 25:34-40:
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are my brothers, you did it to me.