July 10, 2014

Voices Behind Bars: 3 Spiritual Lessons From Working With Women in Prison. ~ Sherrin Fitzer

jail prison woman

When I talk to people about my work in a women’s prison they tell me what amazing work I am doing.

I receive lots of praise for being a giving, compassionate person.

The women I work with also thank me for the help I have given them, which often involves simply listening to their stories. Some thank me in general for what I do for all of the women there.

While I do the work because it is my passion—my mission, what I am supposed to be doing—I have to admit that it feels good to hear these things.

The women are not usually aware of the ways in which they contribute to my spiritual practice, but I try to remember to tell them and thank them.

Here are three spiritual lessons that I’ve learned:

1. Gratefulness.

The women often provide reminders to practice gratefulness.

All I have to do is listen to them talk about what they miss, and sometimes listen to what they are grateful for even in the difficult situation they’re in.

The women miss fresh fruits and vegetables. They miss going to the bathroom alone. They miss quiet. They miss their companion animals. They miss wearing regular clothes. They miss being able to connect with their loved ones when they want and need to.

Without them I may never have thought to be grateful to go into a bathroom, shut the door and do what I need to do in private.

They remind me to be grateful for things I otherwise may have taken for granted. In his book “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life,” Marshall B. Rosenberg describes words such as “should” and “have to” as being forms of violent communication.

I have found myself saying things like, “I should clean my house,” and  “I have to go get groceries.”

Do you know how thrilled the women would be to clean their own houses? How excited they would be to go to a grocery store? Here, they give me a lesson in “re-framing.”

A common misconception is that women in prison don’t have much for which to feel grateful.

Some are grateful for simply being in prison and have told me, “If I wasn’t in prison, I would be dead right now.”

Some are grateful that it has brought them closer to their families. Many are grateful for friends they have made. Others are grateful that they are clean and sober for the first time in many, many years and therefore can begin to know themselves.

If women in prison can find things to be grateful for then surely I can too.

2. Acceptance.

One of my favorite quotations about acceptance is by Cheri Huber, founder and guiding teacher of Zen Monastery Peace Center:

“I have lost my favorite teacup. I have two choices. I can have lost my teacup and be miserable, or I can have lost my teacup and be alright. In either case, the teacup is gone.”

When I teach an orientation class I usually use this quotation and suggest the women substitute anything they choose for the teacup.

Of course, they often substitute: “I am in prison . . .”

Talking with them about acceptance keeps me vigilant of my own levels of acceptance. Working in a prison for a person like me—one who might have sported a “Question Authority” tee shirt at some point in her life—is difficult.

I was actually told once by one supervisor that I asked entirely too many questions. There is hierarchy, bureaucracy, unfairness and decisions to be made about what battles should be fought and which are better left alone.

I—just like the women—have to figure out what I can change and what I can’t.

The women give me courage.

When I am having a day when I think that I just cannot take any more bullshit, I tell myself that if the women can do this, then surely I can.

3. Forgiveness.

Various studies estimate that anywhere from 65-80% of women in prison have experienced some sort of trauma in their pasts.

Clearly, many of these women have also caused trauma to someone in their lives. These traumas can range from murder to the pain that addiction causes loved ones.

While working with the women it seems that many have forgiven their abusers. Not so many have forgiven themselves.

Those of us outside of prison may have suffered trauma, and who among us has not left a casualty or two in our wake?

If the women have not forgiven someone, we talk about how that is hurting them and allowing that person to continue having control over them.

Self-forgiveness proves much trickier for many of us.

I once asked Bo Lozoff, author and founder of The Human Kindness Foundation, for advice with helping myself and the women in prison with self-forgiveness. This was his reply:

 “A woman in prison last week asked me what to do about the stick she carries to constantly beat herself up over her past. I said if she considered herself proud and arrogant for doing that, then she would probably stop pretty quickly. Because that’s what it is. It is not humility or low self-esteem, it is pride and arrogance. She can forgive all the women around her easily for what they have done, but when it comes to herself, she won’t. That means she thinks everyone around her is lower than she is, everyone around her screwed up and it was understandable, but she is better than they are, so she should not have screwed up. You should have been there to see her open-hearted reception of that shocking response. She changed right there in front of everyone. Her beating herself up had been a mark of lowliness to her, something that she could get sympathy for—for being so hard on herself. Once I made it into pride and superiority she ditched it fast. Try it with the women and see.”

The women I work with give me the opportunity to wrestle with these issues.

I want to thank the women I work with for all that they teach me. I am grateful for their strength, resilience, love and humor. It is a privilege to walk this spiritual journey together with them.


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Apprentice Editor: Brandie Smith/Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: Stefano Corso/Flickr Creative Commons

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