New Commitment to Society
by Marianne Acker
When I retired from work, from an interesting position in a bank, my primary plans were to enjoy my new freedom and to finally satisfy my appetite for culture, by studying, reading, listening to music, traveling and, last but not least, spending more time with my family.
However, after two years the satisfaction of this had worn off. I felt the strong desire to go out again and do social work, to invest my energy and time in my town of Frankfurt. Among the multiple different offers and demands I received, I finally decided to visit women in jail. I had had the opportunity about 10 years earlier to see a woman from Venezuela who was in prison and who had wished to meet with a Buddhist of her faith. I had gone to talk to her and encourage her over a one-year period. So, in 1999 I again remembered the dreadful atmosphere of walls, barbed wire, locks, keys, silence, hostility, control, surveillance. I felt that it was my personal challenge to go into jail and offer my understanding, care and support.
I believe that a human being keeps his or her dignity, regardless of what he or she has done, and that it is important to help people overcome their feeling of being second or third class citizens, of being and remaining criminal, of having no future and no real chance to change their life even when back "on the outside."
I feel there is hope, value, strength and goodness in those individuals. When I talk to my friend in jail, I am in no way better than or superior to her. In order to reach the women's hearts, I first have to open up my own. I include them in my prayers, so they become very close and dear to me.
So I began to pay regular visits--once a week for one to two hours--to each of three women, a young German girl with a sentence of 10 years, a Colombian drug courier with five years and a German with three years, a mother who had two young children living with foster parents. Without my asking them, each one would tell me the type of charge she was in for.
The JVA III prison in the state of Hessia holds about 400 female prisoners, one-third coming from other countries. The charges range from financial indebtedness and illegal stay in Germany to robbery, drug dealing, murder and terrorist activities. In Germany, being primarily a Christian country, the churches, Catholic as well as Protestant, offer all kinds of support for those in prison.
While Germany has become a multicultural and multireligious country, when one prisoner suggested introducing Buddhism to her "colleagues," I had to fight this mass of tradition and the view that spiritual welfare is somehow exclusively Christian. After more than six months of sustained effort on our part, our demand was voted on favorably.
In the summer of 2001, a first lecture was given to a small group of interested women. What followed was a seminar in six parts, and since October 2001, I have been leading a group, the "Buddhist Circle," which meets once a week. The atmosphere is supportive, lively and friendly. We always part in good spirits, feeling a tremendous lift.
The prison employees definitely noticed the impact of those activities and the changed aura of the women. The positive changes in the lives of the individuals who are practicing Buddhism are very clear. My determination is that such activities will continue in this jail and that similar possibilities will open up in many other locations in the world.
I also continue to meet regularly with "V," the young woman serving a long sentence whom I first visited in November 1999. She has no interest in Buddhism, but we have simply become good friends. She has developed tremendously and is looking forward to a different kind of life when she is free.
[ Courtesy April 2003 SGI Quarterly ]