What next? Tamms is closed. Now how do we attend to the climate of opinion that permitted, indeed endorsed, the construction of this institution? Specifically, what steps can we take to reverse the programs and policies that characterize this nation’s penal systems?
Wrestling with the “what next” question has been far more difficult than coming to a position on closing Tamms. I think my difficulty is one shared by others in my Meeting and in the general public. And that is why I write. I also write so that I may call attention to some responses to the “what next” question that are emerging as I listen to discussions among Friends in southern Illinois.
Shaping a Minute in support of closing Tamms drew attention to the larger and more complicated dimensions to this subject. As I recall the process, many Friends expressed concerns that the discussion was being framed by Springfield’s concerns for budgets. What about the penal system at large? How is it that we pay our taxes to support systems of punishment rather than programs for rehabilitation? By addressing the debate on closing Tamms, are we distracted from the grim statistics that point to the continuing presence of race and class in the sentencing process? And so, after a month of careful listening, the Meeting did come to a minute supporting closure but with the provision that a second Minute be composed that addressed the larger contexts.
Lest we forget the thousands of prisoners in countless prisons, we have been working on that second Minute. We are not done. We work slowly not simply because of Quaker process but because of the complexity and the immensity of the subject.
Immensity and complexity seemed to numb imagination at the point of addressing the “what next” question. To speak to the strident voices of retribution and to counter the political clout of the prison industry looms up as a labor of Herculean proportions. Many of us have asked ourselves what talents we may offer or how much time and energy we are able to devote to such an undertaking. As I listen, I sense that the discussion is shaped in part by images of a hero peacemaker who comes to task with extraordinary energies and focused devotion. But have we been measuring ourselves by impossible standards? Are we handicapped by such an ideal of the peacemaker that causes many of us to feel inadequate to the task? In various ways, we are asking that question and coming to recognize such models of peacemaker are as likely to discourage as they are to inspire. We seem to be asking another question: Who amongst us is not a peacemaker? As we come to recognize the varieties of peacemakers in our small circle, we may be finding ways to help one another to move from faith and principle to practice.
Meanwhile, we are beginning to recognize specific works that are appropriate to this meeting’s size. The Carbondale chapter of the The Three R’s Project—Reading Reduces Recidivism (www.3rsproject.org)—has been working to acquire books and transport them to regional prisons. The handful of volunteers needs more people to collect, catalog, and move books to prisoners. As Friends listened to a 3Rs organizer, they awakened to a path leading out of the shadow of doubt. We are still aware of our limited abilities. But we are exploring connections with other community groups.
Seeking for connections opens other answers to the “what next” question. By participating in the movement to close Tamms, we came to appreciate at a personal level how many others were concerned. We were entering into a larger community of compassion. With Tamms behind us, we are also learning more about the good work performed by Friends elsewhere who are addressing the prison system. Farther north in Illinois, Quakers have been visiting prisons and bringing books. The example and the guidance of Friends in Champaign may be helpful not only for practical reasons but, equally important, for renewing faith that we are not alone in our resolve to meet the immense and complex challenge of the prison system.
The times tremble with possibility. If we listen carefully, we can hear a growing chorus of voices echoing our concern. Look for a moment at Friends Journal and the recent issue (March 2012) devoted to our prisons. If we look beyond our Meeting, we see that we are part of a larger awakening. Consider for a moment Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. This thorough and impassioned analysis has been praised for stimulating awareness of this long-festering disease. And it has stimulated. But by giving credit to Alexander’s work, do we forget that before the book appeared so many people were prepared to attend to her voice and to buy her book? Alexander was not crying in the wilderness. There were people ready to listen. The buyers and the readers testify to the books significance.
What next? I can only begin to imagine how the growing number of awakened souls in the nation will turn their concerns into practice. But I think my experience in a small community at the very bottom of Illinois can inform. While southern Illinoisans deliberated on Tamms, all the action seemed to be happening far north, 150 miles north in Springfield or another 150 miles farther north in Chicago. I often felt as if we were on the periphery. When asking the “what next” question, we might turn attention from the centers of power and attend to ways to support uncounted others who live in seeming isolation. Lest such communities lose heart in the face of enormity and complexity, we might consider creating organization and communication networks to sustain us all. The struggle will be a long one. This we all understand. We will need to keep faith. And we will need to organize our scattered communities into concerted energy. What next? This may be the emerging task of such groups as the ILYM Peace Resources Committee.