Working in a Prison: Right Livelihood or Quilt of Lies?

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Working in a Prison: Right Livelihood or Quilt of Lies?

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By Sherrin Fitzer

The following dialogue is from the episode “Empathy is a Boner Killer” from Season 3 of Orange is the New Black.

Berdie Rogers a new and well meaning counselor calls inmate Alex Vause to  her office and the following conversation ensues:

Berdie Rogers: Hey, I’m teaching a drama class later. You coming?

Alex Vause: Mmm, that’s not really my thing.

B: Oh, come on. I think it’ll be good for you.

A: How do you know what’s good for me? You just met me.

B: Look, Vause, I get it. I get the anger. When a country has more inmates than teachers or engineers, we are living in a fucked up society. Prison is bullshit.

A:  

[chuckling] Then why work in one?

B: Because I think there are people here with potential that’s being squandered—and I wanna make a—

A: Oh, you wanna make a difference? Yeah, I get it. You’re one of the good guys. But guess what. We all think we’re good guys. I used to work for a drug dealer who wouldn’t hesitate to put a bullet in your head if you crossed him, or if you stopped being useful to him, but in his mind, he’s still a good guy. [laughing] Heroin Robin Hood because he cut out the Mexican cartels and passed on the savings to the consumer, and he never cut his shit with brick dust.

And you’re not just another shill taking a paycheck from an evil system of oppression, ’cause you’re fighting it from the inside with drama class. Fine. Whatever you need to tell yourself to get by. But excuse me if I don’t want to spend my precious time catering to the delusion that you’re making a difference. I have my own quilt of lies to sew.

B: That is a great speech. Now, I would love to hear you give it again in drama class.

The air went out of my body as if I was punched in the stomach when I heard this dialogue.

You see I am Berdie Rogers. I work in a women’s prison. I run a theatre troupe. I justify my paychecks by telling myself I want to make a difference and that I am one of the good guys.

Seeing this episode of OITNB was not the first time I questioned the ethicalness of being paid to work in a prison. It isn’t the first time I have questioned whether I should be working for “an evil system of oppression.”

I have wrestled with this quandary for years now.

It was much easier for me to justify working in prisons when I taught college classes part-time in various prisons and the college picked up the tab, not the prisons. I really liked the work and the prisoners I worked with. It felt like this was where I was supposed to be. It felt like more than a job to me. It felt like a calling.

I kept teaching until I was offered a full-time job at a women’s prison that seemed perfect for me. I could be of service here. I could help women with their children. I could run a theatre troupe and meditation classes. I could be a person who respected them, cared about them and did not judge them.

Is working in a prison a right livelihood?

As my spiritual beliefs moved further to the east I thought about my work in connection with right livelihood, one of Buddhism’s Noble Eightfold Path. Is working in a prison an occupation that does not cause unnecessary harm to other living things? I would say that prison does cause unnecessary harm to the people incarcerated. Even if you believe that a person deserves to be incarcerated  in addition to the sentence imposed by the judge, additional harm often occurs. The officers may be rude and disrespectful. The medical care may not be adequate.  There may be little to no rehabilitation available. Women may not be able to see their children.

So I ask myself do I/should I take the responsibility for that and I ask,  “Am I myself causing unnecessary harm to the women who I work with?” I hope that I do not cause harm to the women I work with. I try to ease pain and do good.

If I did not work for a prison I would work toward prison abolition and/or prison reform (there is a compromise of my beliefs). If I no longer had my job because fewer women were being sentenced to prison, I would be happy. I could live with that.

And so I tell myself that I am making a difference from the inside.

I try not to become cynical and hopeless as I navigate the hierarchy and red tape. I do what I can, where I am with what I have. I tell myself that the women need someone on their side, inside.

Excuse me; I must go. Monday is fast approaching and it seems that my “quilt of lies” needs some reinforcement stitching.

 

 

Photo: goranda/deviantart

Editor: Dana Gornall

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Sherrin Fitzer

Sherrin Fitzer works at a large women’s prison in the Midwest (a place she never would have expected to be, yet it is exactly where she is supposed to be). She has been involved in teaching incarcerated prisoners since 1991. In addition to helping incarcerated women with their children, she facilitates a theatre troupe and meditation classes. She believes in the importance of the arts in prisons and tries to implement this as much as possible. Sophia—seen in the picture—is often her editor and generally a quite harsh one.
By | 2016-10-14T07:50:15+00:00 September 6th, 2015|blog, Buddhism, Empower Me, Featured|1 Comment

One Comment


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    Barbara George September 7, 2015 at 12:08 pm - Reply

    Sherrin, Another very mindful sharing. Thank you.
    As a volunteer in another women’s prison attempting to help the women find some quiescent and skills for interpersonal relating, I leave the grounds each week with an intense feeling of gratitude that the women have shared their time and attention and are willing to make an effort to engage with my mental wanderings. I so often wonder, “how has this system evolved in what we proported to be a caring Christian country?” It often seems to me that those who are employed by the “system” are just as incarcerated by the power and energy of the system or field as the inmates who wear other types of uniforms. Perhaps one day we will put on a different pair of glasses which will allow all of us to see this non-life enhancing system for what it is doing and enact change.

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