Quaker blooms shut out of clink by bureaucratic paranoia
‘P-injected palatable pansies?’
By Viola Palmer, a Kapiti Coast Quaker
How many traditions have been going on quietly for 99 years then abruptly cease? It was not a volcanic eruption or an earthquake that was going to put an end to the tradition of Quakers in Auckland sending posies to prisoners in Mt Eden Jail at Christmas. It was bureaucratic paranoia.
But just who are these Quakers ? And why do they take an interest in prisoners ?
Well, Quakers are members of a small, but tenacious, religious sect which originated in England in the 1650’s.
They believed (and still do) that no priestly intermediary was needed between a person and God, that all people were spiritual equals, that their word was their honour, and that war was contrary to the teachings of Christ.
Early Quakers refused to pay tithes to the established church, denounced clergy for corruption and high living, refused to swear oaths, to bear arms or to kow-tow to the mighty. These actions were seen as ‘disturbing the peace’ .
Quakers were persecuted and over 2,000 were imprisoned. Hence the interest in prisons and the wish to reduce the suffering of prisoners and the hardening of the heart which follows.
Quakers have been active in the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, the humane treatment of prisoners and the mentally ill, and the promotion of peace.
Elizabeth Fry is probably the most well-known prison reformer. Today’s Quakers are still campaigning for penal reform and the reduction of the high rate of imprisonment in New Zealand.
Conscientious Quakers jailed in Mt Eden
During World War One, Quakers Egerton Gill and Tom Bentley and others were imprisoned in Mt Eden for being conscientious objectors and refusing military service.
Their friends began sending them flowers at Christmas. On their release they saw this as a way of making prison a little friendlier and kinder.
Many years pass without prisoners seeing a blade of grass, let alone a rose. For some it is the only sign that the outside world remembers them. The annual tradition was established.
Auckland Quakers get up early on Christmas Eve to pick flowers and make 450 posies for prison inmates.
The trust that had been built between them and prison authorities was suddenly interrupted last December.
Prison managers wary of ‘risky’ blooms
Prison management, claiming concerns about security, said they could not risk the sending of flowers.
Did they imagine P-injected palatable pansies, miniature phones among the freesias or nails in the stem of roses?
In the 99 years there had never been a security breach. The Quakers involved, whose strongest drug would be tea or coffee, were no longer to be trusted.
Shortly before Christmas Eve, Jeremy Lightfoot of the Department of Corrections, asked the prison management to reconsider.
This they did and good sense prevailed. Quakers, with help from others, hastily put together the posies. They reached the prisoners but not before they had passed X-ray and sniffer dogs.