By Sherrin Fitzer 

Would you have compassion for an elderly woman who is getting out of prison and has nowhere to live?

She’s had hip replacement surgery and walks with a walker. Because she is “maxing out”—which means she did her parole time in prison—the prison has no responsibility to find her a place to live.

She has no family.

She will be given a train ticket to Chicago. Period. That’s it.

Let me throw something else into the mix. She is a sex offender. Have your feelings changed?

Many times compassion is not something that is given freely without conditions.

People feel adamantly about who deserves their compassion and who does not. This becomes painfully obvious when working in a prison.

I received a call from a coworker, her boss, asking me to please find her a place to live and I made phone call after phone call. When my coworkers discovered what I was doing they were horrified. “Why are you helping her? Do you know what she did? Have you read her file?” Even the people who I considered to be the most compassionate of my peers were angry with me.

I knew she was a “sex offender.”

I saw an older woman, alone, being dumped in a city with nowhere to go. I didn’t care what her crime was at that moment; she still needed help. I finally found a woman in Chicago who agreed and was willing to give her a chance. They were willing to take her in despite her crime.

Which of the people who commit crimes are we willing to show compassion to? And what type of crimes committed are we willing to forgive and allow compassion?

What conditions do we impose? Whether they were a victim themselves? Whether they committed the crime in self defense? How old they were at the time?  Are they mentally ill? Do people who murder deserve compassion? People with drug charges? Does the type of drug matter?

I work at a prison and find that I have compassion to spare for the incarcerated women. Usually when I interact with them I am not thinking about their crime.  I don’t think I could do my job skillfully if I was.

I am embarrassed to admit that I have little to no compassion for correctional officers and other powers that be.

It’s really difficult to admit that. I have been practicing offering compassion to everyone at work. On some days I completely suck at it, but I keep trying.

If I find it difficult to feel compassion for a particular individual I try to find one good thing about them.

I saw that Correctional Officer smile and pet one of our service dogs. I saw the Warden intervene in a situation so that more extreme measures would not be needed. Sometimes I try to remind myself that they were once a baby like us all.

I also use the Dalai Lama’s wisdom: “From the moment of birth, every human being wants happiness and does not want suffering.” I asked a wise friend of mine what to do if none of these efforts worked. She said to imagine what it must be like to be that person, a person who is so difficult to feel compassion for.

And as I continue my search for compassion for all I leave you with lyrics by Phil Ochs which express how I feel about my compassion for prisoners:

“Show me a prison, show me a jail
Show me a prisoner, man, whose face is growin’ pale
And I’ll show you a young man with many reasons why
And there but for fortune, may go you or I.”


Photo: glubbs/tumblr

Editor: Dana Gornall