Love in the belly of the beast

Note: This year Laura Magnani gave the final plenary address at the FGC Gathering. She focused her remarks on her long years working within and outside the criminal justice system, grappling with a system which she believes embodies and carries out evil.  In her talk she spoke about the power of nonviolence and love to upend both the racism out of which mass incarceration has arisen and the system itself and to find a way to a “new normal” based on transformative justice.

During the week of the FGC Gathering, before Laura’s talk, Friends kept having table conversations about mass incarceration. Many of these Friends came to an event hosted by AFSC co-led by Laura and Lewis Webb about organizing your meeting (or church) to support ending mass incarceration.

The room was full and the Spirit was rising. People were filled with a sense of urgency and readiness.  Out of those meetings arose a new national group, the Quaker Network to end Mass Incarceration.  By the conclusion of Laura’s talk 166 Friends had signed up to be a part of the network.

Prison bound by Thomas Hawk

Laura serves with other AFSC staff and Quakers on the steering committee. If you’d like to be a part of the network, email us at If you’d like to get connected to other Quaker meetings and churches working to end mass incarceration or on other issues on which AFSC focuses and learn ways to organize within your meeting/church, invite your congregation to join the AFSC Meeting/Church Liaison program. We will have orientation calls in which we introduce a powerful, faith-based organizing model on September 11th and September 21stYou can register here.   

I look forward to seeing what might emerge from this network and Quakers’ coordinated and connected efforts on this issue.  I look forward to us working together to manifest our sense that “love is the first motion.”  - Lucy

The first time I visited a prisoner, I was in my early 20s and working for the Friends Committee on Legislation of California in Sacramento. When we told the prisoner that two of us wanted to visit, he distanced himself from the idea as much as possible: “I know you are really busy. You shouldn’t really take the time. I’ll understand if you can’t make it.”

Structured penance by Mike

Once inside the gates, all conversation between my mentor and me ceased. It immediately became obvious that this was some foreign land built on assumptions far different from the ones I had previously known. We waited in a room next to the visiting room, where you weren’t allowed to bring a book, or newspaper, or anything that could help you meaningfully pass the time. Time is what there was plenty of there. When we were finally escorted into the visiting room, our friend found his way to our table, reached out his hand, and said, “Thanks for coming; I haven’t had a visit in 13 years.”

Years later, in a federal women’s prison, I facilitated a women’s group, one of whose members decided to throw a birthday party for herself. She invited a few friends and sat with them on her bunk, surrounded by a few candy bars she was able to purchase from the commissary. A guard came by and saw this scene, broke it up, and confiscated the candy. He gave no particular reason for this action. They were breaking no rules, but he just thought there must be something wrong because they were enjoying themselves in prison. Or maybe he was just having a bad day. The system allows him—even encourages him—to take out his pain on others. The women had absolutely no recourse, and they knew it.

To me, the beast is the embodiment of the evil of a system that operates as an intense harming force. We are all in its belly, drowning in its toxic juices as it swallows up our resources and delivers up more dangerous people into a world that is trained to hate them and block them from thriving on the outside.

Concertina Wire by Kate Ter Haar

I really don’t want to talk about sin at all. It is too tied up with individual failings, with personal wrongdoing. I want to address something even scarier: the “E” word. I have come to believe there truly is something called Evil out there, and rather than go to a place of denial, we really need to get acquainted with it. The E word for me is about systemic realities that force us into violent and abusive cultures that are almost impossible to resist or overcome. As with sin, Quakers don’t go there much—we prefer the positive. But, is it possible we don’t go there because most of us have had the luxury not to? Most of us are people of privilege, whether based on our color, our economic status, our education, our location in the dominant culture, or all of those things. The kinds of horrors that might put us smack up against capital E evil could be living in a war zone, living in a domestic situation that feels like a war zone, living with a skin color other than white, or living in prison. If we found ourselves in one of those social locations, the idea that evil exists would be really hard to miss.

I work on prison issues, so the beast that I want to unpack is what goes on in these very hidden institutions. There is a very high level of violence, engaged in by the keepers as well as the kept. Distrust and suspicion are the ruling factors, not sometime things people learn to engage in after they’ve been betrayed. People in prisons are constantly confronted with decisions: kill or be killed; show gentleness and vulnerability at your own peril; demonstrate leadership and you risk indefinite isolation and other punishment. The environment is so toxic that surviving is a constant struggle, and the chances of achieving something like wholeness are remote.

I know it is uncomfortable to stay in this place. But we can’t find our way out without knowing what we are dealing with. I want to focus on two features that I think illustrate the toxicity of this beast’s belly: racism and the use of solitary confinement. Read the rest of the Friends Journal article here.


Here is the full video of Laura's talk: