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Working in a jail

A perspective from one who works with people in prison.

Prison worker standing on a staircase.
I serve the policy of compassion that all sentient beings are entitled to. (Photo by Jeff Drongowski)

A corrections officer writes how he works within the correctional system to treat incarcerated people with equanimity and compassion and how he tries to help them and their families.

Like entrusting yourself to a brave man when greatly afraid,
By entrusting yourself to the awakening mind,
You will be swiftly liberated,
Even if you have made appalling errors.

—From the Majjhima Nikaya, Pali Canon

Serving two policies

I work for the Sheriff’s Office, specifically in the jail as a detention specialist. That means I work at a variety of positions in the jail, such as booking, bonding, or guard towers. I work around murderers, molesters, petty thieves, drug addicts, and so on. Needless to say, I see many things and many people. People give me a wide range of looks when I tell them what I do for a living. The biggest thing they ask is, “Why?” The only way I know to answer is to smile.

The role I serve in corrections is a dual one. First I serve the policy of compassion that all sentient beings are entitled to. Second, I serve the corrections system where there is an unwritten policy of “us and them.” The danger is that if one chooses to participate in this unwritten policy, it will create a serious rift between people. Contained in this rift is the selection of who will receive my compassion and who will not. In other words, if you are not like “us” and are one of “them,” then the rift between incarcerated people and staff is obvious. Of course, this is not exclusive to the prison environment.

I offer the following thoughts to give people a different perspective on work in corrections, a perspective from someone who works with and around incarcerated people. Some of these thoughts are mental notes to myself. Others are topics I have discussed with some incarcerated people and their families.

Mental notes to myself

Walk into your day with no preconceived notions, judgments, or expectations. Carry no thought or emotion that will cause any living being or yourself suffering. Be clear and fluid. This will promote fearlessness in your giving. The giving of compassion and the desire to be of benefit to others is not something you have to make up. It is already within you to do. There is no proverbial well that will run dry. To think that there is will set limits and will create a fear that you eventually will run dry. Do not complicate your giving in order to feel accomplishment.

There is no being whose suffering is more or less than any other being. Suffering is suffering. Suffering in any state of being is undesirable. Just as you wish not to suffer, others desire the same. All beings have the right to happiness and not to suffer. Therefore, one cannot discriminate to whom we will give compassion and who will be left out. One does not give compassion based on personal judgments, preconceived notions or expectations of an individual. This would be an incorrect motivation, and incorrect motivation is premeditated suffering.

The person you come across may be foul smelling, dirty, or perhaps has committed a grievous act. It may be that they are clean, smell nice, and appear upstanding. The wisdom is in knowing there is no difference between them—just labels, but labels are not who these people are.

It is not our business to judge someone’s actions. It is not our business to develop a preconceived notion of how a person should think, feel, or act. It is not appropriate to expect something in return for compassion given.

I will not under any circumstances be a part of “us and them” in a prison environment or any other environment. Compassion is for all sentient beings without exception. No being is more or less deserving of compassion than any other. All beings, no excuses.

Thoughts shared with incarcerated people and their families

Each person is accountable for their own actions, whether those actions are good, bad, or indifferent. One will be responsible for them and therefore, it’s good to understand their karmic weight and effects. We hope that our actions are of a kind and loving nature; we know that not all of them are. Such is the nature of things.

Try not to struggle emotionally over helping someone. To struggle can cause a wide gap. Try not to struggle against the nature of anything. Sometimes it is hard to understand why things are a certain way, and the more we try to make something different from how its nature is, the more it creates suffering. Let it be as it is and roll with it. The world is always changing and moving. What is born has to die and sometimes the wind just does not blow the way we like. You cannot force or take away. Such is the nature of things.

The nature of all things is that they are impermanent. Chasing after and acquiring that bigger, better television is not going to give you lasting happiness in your impermanent life. There is no magical water, ointment, or wand that will make you young or immortal. With this in mind, isn’t it strange how we create our own suffering?

There are times when we suffer at the hands of others. There are times when we seemingly get broadsided by tragedy. If you believe in karma, ask yourself, “Where does this suffering actually come from?” If you do not believe in karma, check yourself on the responsibility for your previous actions. If all else fails or escapes you, cultivate deeply the understanding of the impermanence of all things. Be honest with yourself and the answer will be there.

Understand that just as we create our own suffering, we can create our own happiness. Happiness does not mean searching outside of ourselves to find the perfect thing or person, but rather searching within ourselves. When some think of happiness, they think of a bigger car or house and all the trappings that go with them. There are some people that have everything they want, and they are miserable. There are others who have nothing and are perfectly happy. This is not to say that being materially endowed is a miserable way to be.

Everything you need for calm, peaceful happiness is within you. We lose sight of this by picking up so much useless emotional baggage on our path. If you plan on going on a ten-mile walk, you don’t take along fifty pounds of luggage. If you did, my bet is that you would shed the luggage after a short distance. Our emotional baggage is no different. Take a load off and let it go. Love yourself and feel the weight come off. What was is gone, and what will be hasn’t even happened. Be with yourself now.

If you are walking along and step on something less than desirable and it coats your shoe, you move quickly to wash your shoe. Then you carefully inspect every nook and cranny of your shoe to make sure the undesirable material is gone. If it isn’t gone, you meticulously clean it again. Funny how we give such careful attention to goop on our shoe but not the goop in our minds. And do we give careful attention to those we care for and how we treat other beings?

All things and all living beings are impermanent. The world and everything in it are ever changing and moving. Nothing remains the same from moment to moment. Realize how precious this human form is and the impermanence that goes with it. Understand deeply that you have within yourself everything you need for a calm peaceful happiness. Think not about gaining anything but rather losing some things to peel layers back so you can see and utilize what has always been there. Because the world is in constant flux, we have little time to act positively and for the benefit of all sentient beings. All life is precious even when we realize we are ashes with footprints.

At some point and for their own personal healing, one who makes a mistake—whether it is intentional or unintentional—needs to come in contact with the backlash that those mistakes often present. This is the nature of making mistakes and nothing more.

We often complicate situations in order to feel a sense of control. The understanding is in knowing that we cannot force things to be the way we want. Rather we want to let go of certain unrealistic thoughts so we can see the true nature of things.

When a person has made a mistake and is sent to prison, one has the perception that the family goes with them, so to speak. This is the nature of making mistakes and nothing more. I am not downplaying the emotions of the people involved by any means. It is just the nature of the situation however unfortunate that may be. If a family member wishes to see their loved one, they will encounter red tape. This is the nature of the situation at hand as well. It is nothing more and nothing less. Of course the prison system is not fair and needs to be reformed, all of society is involved in doing this and thus it will take time. Once someone is entangled in the prison system, working within its rules makes one’s stay more bearable.

Considering all of the above, one must understand it is how one chooses to handle the situation at hand. Be present; get real. Working against the natural flow of any situation brings suffering and drives a larger rift into the situation.

The bottom line for everyone is compassion for all sentient beings. Compassion, compassion, compassion. No excuses no exceptions. Understand the situation and what brought you to being either behind the bars or behind the visitation glass and consider all those involved.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.