Terry Waite

This was the 2019 Quaker Lecture delivered by Terry Waite to the Religious Society of Friends in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

When Terry Waite, who is both an Anglican and a Quaker, decides to share his thoughts on crime and punishment, one listens, humbled, reminding oneself that the wisdoms about incarceration that underline his 2019 Quaker Lecture come experientially from his own period of imprisonment .

In 1987, while he was an envoy for the Church of England attempting to negotiate the release of hostages in Lebanon, he was kidnapped and imprisoned in Beirut. He spent nearly five years in strict solitary confinement, in chains and sleeping on the floor. For three years he was allowed neither books, nor papers, and had no conversation with anyone at all beyond cursory words with his guards.

He has powerful opinions about the consequences of incarceration. His own imprisonment was political rather than criminal, but Waite is able to use it to shine a search light on the sociology and social psychology of crime, imprisonment, and of corrective interventions.

He is not arguing to do away with prison sentences.

He agrees with Alexander Paterson, Commissioner of Prisons and Director of Convict Prisons in the UK during the 1940s, whose observation was that people are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. Prison should not be a venue for the harsh, cruel treatment that sensational media reports may sometimes call for.  The purpose of prison is rehabilitation. 

Does this mean he’s pressing for offenders to receive no negative consequences for their crimes? Of course not. Waite describes vividly, and disturbingly, the inevitable realities of a lived prison sentence, of its serious deprivations and stresses. He points out that the reality of prison is a serious punishment in itself.

My own convict ancestor, a scrawny, teenaged, highway robber with sentimental tattoos, seemingly had it easy: he was assigned to a farmer, learned how to farm, and eventually established the successful agricultural business my family runs today. But he also left us the lovingly treasured letter written by his sister in England, in which she grieves, and fantasises how they might, someday, meet again.

Waite cites Alexander Maconochie, secretary to Sir John Franklin, the Governor of Van Diemans Land. Maconochie wrote:

The convict system, being fixated on punishment alone, released back into society crushed, resentful, bitter men, in whom the spark of enterprise and hope was dead.” 

Maconochie lost his job because of taking this stance, but he eventually was appointed Commandant of the penal settlement.

Disturbingly, Waite cites the British National Council for Health and Care Excellence.  It reports that more than 90% of prisoners in Britain suffer from at least one of the following psychiatric disorders: psychosis, anxiety/depression, personality disorder, alcohol misuse or drug dependence. They report the statistics for the same diagnoses for the general British population as 10%–15%.

This statistic alerts us to the cruelty and harm of increasing stress on people already compromised in coping with life.

Waite also points out that statistically it is the poorer members of society who wind up with sentences, the very people who are already disadvantaged in life.  Speaking to New Zealanders, he points out that Maori are more represented in prison populations than Pakehas. And we Australians learn from the current TV advertisement that an aboriginal youth is much more likely to end up in gaol than in university.

In the light of the above statistics Waite expresses great concern about the sensationalism and focus on gory murders in the popular press. He considers that this approach invites an impression that viscousness is more typical of offenders than it actually is, and contributes to disgust of offenders that prevents empathy.

He finishes with examples of rehabilitation programs that actually do work.

He cites an early rehabilitation facility, Grendon Underwood, in the UK, which also was among the first to paint the facility in pleasant pastel colours rather than the accustomed, punitive brown! Grendon Underwood adopted a therapeutic community model in which the community of peers and staff become the healer, resulting in impressive statistics on reduction of re-offending.

I have, myself, worked in such a therapeutic community in Canada in the 1960’s and 70’s. Our unit was not labelled a penitentiary, but a hospital.  We had nurses and psychiatrists and psychologists and social workers, not warders. Admittedly our patients were carefully selected, but they included some of the most violent offenders in Ontario. Staff as well as patients attended Ward Meetings presided over by an elected patient Ward Clerk and Secretary. Many aspects of ward administration and conditions were discussed and voted on in these Ward Meetings, and problematic behaviours scrutinised and consequences dealt out. Staff whom the ward thought had behaved improperly were discussed and sometimes sanctioned in the same forum.

I cherish a recollection of a particular, shy, Inuit patient, who had committed a very violent offence. I asked him which intervention on our ward he thought had been the most valuable. He answered that he had been sitting on his bed talking to his room mate about the offence, and his room mate listened with concern. “And when he listened to me, I started listening to myself, and suddenly I began to understand how I came to do what I did”.

Waite also alludes to Warren Hill, a facility in the East of England for people with life sentences, and people who are serving sentences of Imprisonment For Public Protection. These are people who will not be released. He  describes it’s welcoming attitude for new prisoners: “From the moment you get off the bus they shake your hand and give you a cup of tea. Everyone lives and works side by side”.

Terry Waite closes with the following quote from Elizabeth Fry, that great Quaker prison reformer:

When thee builds a prison, thee had better build with the thought ever in your mind that thee and thy children may occupy the cells”.

This review touches on only on a sample of Terry Waite’s wisdoms in the 2019 Lecture. I strongly recommend  acquiring a copy of this 2019 Quaker Lecture for your Local Meeting Library.

Acey Teasdale, NSW Regional Meeting.

The full text of this lecture can be downloaded at http://quaker.org.nz/quaker-lecture



Share This