The Connection Between Quakerism and Solitary Confinement


Frank Sheffield , staff writer

Quakerism values the importance of reflection. Reflection is not only looking in the mirror or a shadow staring back at you, it is taking time to sit and think about yourself, decisions you made, the positive and negative, and overall life itself. Quakers practice this everyday sitting together in a space as a community, looking deeply within themselves and how they affect others around them. This process goes hand in hand with the core beliefs in Quakerism: looking intently into oneself and identifying the positive inner light that we all have. By identifying this light, Quakers are able to use this to guide their decisions through the grace of God and in turn get closer to God himself. This act of locating the inner light is essential because it shows the direct and powerful connection that is possible with God rather than a barrier or ritual needing to be done through an intermediary. 

The value of reflection and getting closer and closer to the light inside everyone is the core belief of Quakers. This belief is the foundation and basis of solitary confinement and the founding message. Although Quakers did not create solitary confinement, Quakers heavily  supported the idea as an alternative to the death sentence. According to research by Harvard Law students, starting in the 19th century, solitary confinement was meant to serve as a time for prisoners to reflect, feel remorse, and ameliorate the weight of guilt. According to Ruth Flower and his article on solitary confinement and quakers, at the very beginning in 1829, solitary confinement served its purpose. – a new radical and liberating idea, which was somewhat effective. This idea spread rapidly, starting in areas in between New York and Philadelphia. However as time went on, people very quickly saw that while solitary confinment provided an alternative to physical torture, it caused much more pychological trauma. This was a new type of torture that emphasized the chastising  of the mind over a long period of time. Many saw this long and painful death as worse than simple and short one. According to Dana Smith and her research on solitary confinement stress on the brain, it causes a long term chronic stress on the brain damaging the hippocampus. In the real world this area is important for memory, spatial orientation and emotion regulation. These effects can cause major changes to a person socially and effect who they are as people overall.

By experiencing the Quaker religion daily here in the Sandy Spring community it is almost blasphemous to think that torture was the goal of the process. Quakers are very altruistic people who care and love to positively influence the world. Quakers have long taken steps towards justice, supporting movements such as abolition and the fight against slaverly, the Black Lives Matter movement, women’s rights, and many others. It is clear that Quakers look to change the social culture positively through justice and immediate  action. It appears that the implementation of solitary confinement was an act done with good intention, but sadly backfired. 

This mistake has caused many repercussions and consequences for people in the criminal justice system. Today, Quaker activists have taken a keen approach and focus on criminal justice, to make up for the detrimental mistake that they made in the 19th century.