150+ Canadians Day 82: John Howard & Elizabeth Fry Societies

The John Howard and Elizabeth Fry Societies contribute to peace by advocating for prison reform and providing services to prisoners. #Canada150

“When thee builds a prison, thee had better build with the thought ever in thy mind that thee and thy children may occupy the cells.” – Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845)

Based on the example of their namesakes, these societies provided service and advocacy for prisoners and ex-prisoners.

Elizabeth Fry, a Quaker, visited Newgate Prison in 1813 and was appalled by the conditions she found. Her insight, persistence, organizational ability and her willingness to see a spark of the divine in every person resulted in striking reforms taking place in the treatment of women and children London’s Newgate Prison. She was a strong proponent of humane treatment for prisoners and regarded by many as a leading expert in prison reform.

John Howard was an 18th century Englishman who spent five years in French dungeons. Later, as Sheriff of Bedford he was tasked with inspecting local prisons. Shocked by the corruption, stench, filth, starvation and disease he saw in the jails, he dedicated his life to improving prison conditions throughout England, Wales and continental Europe. His famous report, On the State of Prisons in England and Wales led to legislation against the more obvious evils of the system, and slowly moved public opinion to favour more humane prison conditions.

The Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS) is an association of self- governing, community-based Elizabeth Fry Societies that work with and for women and girls in the justice system, particularly those who are, or may be, criminalized. Together, Elizabeth Fry Societies develop and advocate the beliefs, principles and positions that guide CAEFS. The association exists to ensure substantive equality in the delivery and development of services and programs through public education, research, legislative and administrative reform, regionally, nationally and internationally. CAEFS work to increase public awareness and promotion of decarceration for women; reduce the numbers of women who are criminalized and imprisoned in Canada; increase the availability of community-based, publicly funded, social service, health and educational resources available for marginalized, victimized, criminalized, and imprisoned women; and to work collaboratively with other women’s groups working to address poverty, racism, and other forms of oppression.

Elizabeth Fry Societies have developed a number of position papers on issues; such as, the LSD experiments on women at the Kingston Prison for Women, deaths in custody, and literacy, as well as numerous papers on the experience of Indigenous women in the justice system. They provided recommendations to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the need for the Commission, the impact of Residential Schools on Indigenous women, the criminalization and over-incarceration of Indigenous women, the over policing and under-protecting of Indigenous women in the community, the child welfare crisis, the need to keep Indigenous women from being incarcerated to begin with, and the inequity of security assessments that experience in prison.

The John Howard Society depends heavily on public involvement to deliver and shape their programs. Volunteers are extensively involved in the direct work of delivering services and programs to young offenders including education for youth at the primary prevention level, training and employment services for youth, counseling (some specific to problems such as drug and alcohol abuse and sexual offending), literacy and/or life skills programs for youth, supervision of young offender Community Service Orders, young offender Victim Offender Reconciliation/Restitution programs, young offender Attendance Centre programs, and residential programs.  At the provincial/territorial and national levels, activities have included providing testimony in a professional capacity at young offender transfer hearings, preparing community education bulletins, position papers and briefs related to the issues of youth crime and young offenders and working with a coalition of organizations and individuals concerned about the welfare of children who may be at risk of coming into conflict with the law.

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