Question: According to Buddhist teachings, is it morally alright to work in a prison? What if one’s work is linked to prisoners facing the death sentence?
Answer: It is alright to work in a prison, so long as it is a fair prison, where the incarcerated are not jailed or treated unfairly. That said, the Buddha’s teachings do not support killing of sentient beings, what more those who are already imprisoned, not capable of endangering other sentient lives.
The death sentence is a human act of ‘retribution’ in terms of meting the harshest punishment, while prisons should serve only as reformation centres instead of being execution grounds. Capital punishment might not allow adequate reformation, while the adequately reformed do not need capital punishment.
For criminals whom the authorities are uncertain of having repented fully or not, there can be longer sentences or even the life sentence given – to offer a lifetime of opportunities to reform. They can be tasked to do meaningful work for society in prison. If the unrepented are killed unhappily (i.e. with anger, vengeance, fear, pain), they are unlikely to have good rebirths. Even if they are reborn as humans again, their unreformed criminal habits might continue.
Thus, for morally conscientious Buddhists, their jobs should be as delinked from, as far away from the breaking of any precepts as possible, including facilitation of humans to be killed. If one is already working in a closely related department in a prison, it would be wise to transfer to another.