by Treacy Ziegler
This post is written in installments exploring what is understood as kindness in prison. In writing this post, I asked prisoners across the United States to share their experiences of kindness in prison.
Kindness makes you idle, worse, unnatural.
Richie is a student in my art class where I had been volunteering at a high security prison. Walking with other prisoners through the prison yard to the building that houses the class, he pushes a metal walker upon which he is dependent. Richie’s legs are unable to stand on their own. I do not know the cause of his disability. The fact that we are in prison makes me assume this disability is the result of violence rather than a congenital problem such as cerebral palsy. Other than location, I don’t know why I make this assumption. When Richie reaches the stairs, he cannot maneuver up on his own. One prisoner takes Richie’s walker while another prisoner lends him an arm to lean upon while he ascends the stairs. This is not the first time I’ve seen prisoners helping another prisoner; particularly prisoners with handicaps attempting to traverse the landscape of prison. There are few efforts to make this landscape friendly to anyone. I am struck with the automatic help given to Richie. There is no hesitation in the prisoners’ help to Richie and Richie does not hesitate in accepting.
As a volunteer art teacher in prisons of several states, I’ve witnessed a number of these acts of kindness between prisoners – perhaps, acts that could be seen as random personal acts of kindness. However, the more I observe, not only does kindness seem less random, it seems less the domain of a single person. This confuses me. I had always thought of kindness as an attribute of an individual, clumping kindness with anything that can be said about a person, “…. tall, lanky, and very kind.”
Prison changed that understanding for me. Instead, kindness seems to be dependent upon an underlying structure or system. Moreover, it seems necessary for that community to interpret kindness: if someone is kind to me for no clear reason, I might question whether it is kindness or not; whereas if someone punches me in the nose, the violence of that punch is clear, regardless of the why. Not knowing the dynamics of the kindness shown to me, I must look to the context.
Of course, I am but a volunteer observer. How do prisoners understand kindness in prison? I asked this question of prisoners participating in a through-the-mail program in which I create art curriculums for prisoners across the United States. The prisoners in receiving the newsletters and course offerings represent every state and approximately 1000 prisons. I have greater freedom asking questions in the newsletter than I do while teaching in prison workshops where my conversation is restricted.
In a newsletter sent to 2500 prisoner participants (this number has more recently grown to 6500), I asked the prisoners to share four different situations of kindness they might have experienced or observed:
Kindness that felt sincere;
Kindness that seemed to be masquerading for something else;
Kindness that began with sincere intention, but got misinterpreted and misdirected into another action (often violence);
Kindness between a prisoner and staff or volunteer; what I refer to as “across the border” kindness.
Just to be clear – all my questions were informal inquiries and not a research project!
While I don’t want to undermine the prisoners’ answers – about 50 prisoners answered the questions – I have to consider their answers in the context of prison where anything written or said can be used against the prisoner in a parole hearing. I often encounter posed-for-parole answers while teaching in prisons. When prisoners answer my question as to why they want to take the art class, they frequently answer; “I want to better myself;” “I want to express myself,” and so on. Sometimes when I challenge these answers, by asking “Yeah, but why really?” I get different answers: “I want to make money,” “I want to hang with the tattoo artists in class,” and other less than ideal-ridden answers.
In some cases, prisoners in answering the questions described themselves as the person being kind. Most letters are screened by the administration and it is probably good to sound like a kind person to the administration. Later, when I asked prisoners similar questions but substituted violence for kindness, no one had any violent experiences to contribute. Of course, the prisoner Logan suggested I was insane to even asked such a question, saying. “ No one wants to write about witnessing or participating in violence”.
The prisoners’ answers to the first question of “sincere acts of kindness” described prison kindness in two ways: kindness as giving something tangible and kindness that was intangible. It seems understandable in prison where prisoners are required to live with so little personal belongings, kindness is experienced as sharing material goods. They shared clothes, toiletries, food, coffee, and so on. On the other hand, intangible kindness included empathy, concern, respect, encouragement, and other acts of goodwill.
The prisoner John writes about being without any material goods and another prisoner offering him things with which to get by: “I had a bad run-in with one of the ranking officers and was locked up and had all my property taken from me. I didn’t even have a toothbrush or toilet paper. Another inmate in lock-up saw how bad a shape I was in and just gave me a toothbrush, toilet paper, and other items I needed. He did not want anything in return. He just said, “Man, I’ve been there.”
Likewise, Davell describes the kindness he received after being released from a week in solitary confinement: “After a week in Ad seg, I was released to general population and in serious need for some deodorant. Fortunately, I had a book of postal stamps that at half price sells for five dollars. All my personal property was in receiving and release. If I was lucky, I’d be getting it the next day but for the time being I needed to barter a book of stamps for a deodorant. I was escorted from Ad seg and housed in a 8-man cell. I made the 7th man. There was only one man in the cell as I entered. My first thought of him was he is a lame. So I sat on my bunk and waited to meet the other guys when they got in. The second guy I met gave off a scent of a guy who has been through the prison sentence and knew what time it was. After we introduced ourselves, I showed him my paperwork and ran down to him why I was in Ad seg (a misunderstanding). I told him I needed a deodorant, that I had a book of stamps. He provided me with a deodorant and let me sport his brand new tennis shoes until I got some from inmate laundry. I was moved by his kindness…. when I was issued my property I returned to the cell with all my stuff and I replaced what I got. It was my birthday and I was planning to cook a prison feast, so once I got situated, I cooked enough for the both of us. As I’m writing this, my allergies have been acting up and this same guy gave me a bottle of eye drops and a bottle of allergy tablets. That was kind.”
Bradley tells me (Bradley is a prisoner in one of my classes): “I have a lot of money, so I try to give something to others.”I don’t know where Bradley gets his money and to what extent this makes his life less stressful, but I see how he helps younger prisoners in my class.
Sometimes the exchange of money is not directly given to the needy prisoner but to a third person acting as intermediary. David writes: “I had a celly who was “riding” or paying protection by sex acts or washing clothes, etc. to a gang. One of my friends gave me the money, $100, to “buy” my celly’s freedom from the gang under the condition that he remain anonymous to all.” (I’m not sure why an intermediary was needed in this situation and David doesn’t explain.)
Many of the prisoners who answered these questions are/were in solitary confinement, and Brian writes: “I am housed in a maximum security federal prison. Acts of kindness are very very rare to say the least. Most kindness is perceived as a weakness and taken advantage of immediately. You walk into a housing unit and you stick out…you’re the only one in the room with bright orange deck shoes. You are being sized up and odds layed on if you’ll make it a week or not. Then a few guys will pool together and put a care package/starter kit bag together for you. It’s a one time shot and usually only if they think you might make it. It’s a no strings attached bag containing soap, shampoo, razors, clothes matching the colors of everyone else, and maybe coffee, soup, crackers, enough for a snack if you miss a meal your first couple days….. stuff until you’re situated and figure out a schedule.” When Brian describes the pooling together of a care package, there seems to be a structure for this empathy. Of course, living in this situation of being without basic things could just as easily create – and does create – a community of stealing. I wondered what enables a group to be givers instead of a group of takers?
In describing intangible kindness – empathy, listening and so on – the prisoner Armando writes: “I was in isolation. We couldn’t see each other. Only hear each other. There was a skinhead and a Black homosexual next door to him. The Black homosexual was very depressed and on the verge of suicide. So the skinhead shared some of his smuggled-in coffee with him. Told him, he don’t like the gay stuff but would talk to him the days he was there. He’d encourage him (the Black prisoner) to stay strong. The reason was obvious. He did it outta of kindness. That skinhead did it often in a respectful way without making it seem like charity conversation. He’d listen.”
In reading Armando’s description, I wonder, “What makes listening charity? And what stigma is placed on this?”.
As in the general culture, kindness in prison appears to be made of similar elements – respect, giving, helping, listening, the feeling of goodwill towards another, compassion. That kindness can happen in prison is not the question – it does. Instead, in the next few posts I want to figure out not if but how kindness functions; understanding kindness not based upon the idiosyncratic virtues of an individual but how the community and structure of prison enables or hinders kindness. It seems to me that kindness in prison is most likely hindered not because prisoners are a bunch of unkind people. Instead, it seems that kindness is hindered because prison creates a single identity for the prisoners and then institutionalizes hate for that single identity of inmate. How does this institutionalized hate make kindness suspect between individuals, thus making kindness/lack of kindness not a function of an individual, but of a system? This is a question I explore along with the prisoners’ answers to the second question – describe experiences in which a prisoner was pretending to be kind to others for their own alternative gains – in the next installment.
About the guest contributor:
Treacy Ziegler is a regular contributor to the PAC blog, and has been an exhibiting artist for the past 23 years. She studied painting and printmaking for four years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. As a student she was awarded a J. Henry Scheidt Traveling Scholarship. Before studying art at PAFA, Ziegler received a Master in Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania working in the area of family therapy. Ziegler has been awarded two New York State Community Art Partnership Grants in painting and in printmaking. In 2009, Ziegler began exhibiting her work in prisons and created An Open Window, a project within the project of Prisoner Express in the Center For Transformative Action affiliated with Cornell University. In this project she donates her artwork to prisons, develops in-prison art workshops, and creates through-the-mail-art curricula with a network of 6,500 prisoners throughout the United States, many who are in solitary confinement. Ziegler lives with her husband, Gary Weisman, a sculptor, in Newfield, New York.