by Treacy Ziegler
What happens when volunteers and non-prisoners mingle with prisoners? How does kindness get interpreted between those living exclusively in a closed system with those living in the more open system of society?
As mentioned earlier, the basic prison rule for volunteers is not to trust prisoners. However, volunteers do not usually come to prison because they hate prisoners; quite the opposite. More often, individuals volunteer in prison through humanitarian concerns of which trust is a basic element. In fact, mistrust is often counterintuitive to many volunteers and it is easy to see how the volunteers can be a major problem to the prison, needing constant admonishment for their potential trust of prisoners.
While teaching an art prison class in a high security prison, I developed a migraine. Unable to get medication from the infirmary, I had the dilemma of whether to tell my prisoner students about the headache. Not telling them and pretending I feel ok, makes it more difficult to teach. However, in telling them, I make myself vulnerable; putting myself somewhat at their mercy. I chose to tell them, adding, “Think of me as the queen where you have to bring your drawings immediately in front of my face so I don’t have to turn left or right. It hurts so much to move my head.” The prisoners think my request is funny, but they comply displaying their drawings immediately in front of my eyes. It is kind of funny, when suddenly I see out of the corner of my eye, two pills set on the table next to me. I can’t see who put them there, but I sense they are ibuprofen or such painkillers, and feel a rush of relief. I almost move my arm towards them but immediately catch myself, thinking, “What is taking medicine from a prisoner – a felony?” The experience makes me question the strange institutionalized structure of prison where kindness becomes a felony.
What are other forms of kindness crossing the border between volunteers and prisoners that may violate the volunteer handbook? Is sharing laughter an expression of kindness? It is reported by research for Stanford Business school, humor creates a bridge between individuals because laughter “sparks the release of oxytocin, a hormone that facilitates social bonding, increases trust, and quickens self-disclosure.” I remember a prisoner in the super-maximum security prison stating, “If it wasn’t for the volunteer, prison would be totally intolerable.” He made this statement in response to on-going laughter in the class.
Lisa Daigle, a volunteer in a New England prison, spoke of laughter as a constant element in her class. When I recently asked Lisa about this, she wrote; “Laughter and humor are a shared language that create a bond between inmate and volunteer. This language creates a space where deep feelings can emerge, as laughter opens up our vulnerable side. Laughter and humor also add brevity when the topics get heavy. Some inmates are distrustful of each other, and laughter helps ease the distrust and elicits common humanity. The anticipation of fun also draws inmates to return to classes as they can count on having fun in an otherwise challenging existence; at times, it seems that they forget where they are. And, when volunteers laugh, it feels like we are more like them, which is simply to say that we are all people, and that we are more alike than we are different. Sometimes, though, when the laughter dies down, the room becomes somber, because the inmates do remember where they are. And, they know that the volunteers are feeling that in the space that emerges after the laughter.
Prison guards were particularly skeptical of laughter in my classroom, suspecting it would develop the trust prohibited in my volunteer handbook. They were correct; it did allow trust.
Obviously, relationships between guard and prisoner are much more tested through daily living than those between volunteer and prisoner. Even so, I saw some guards acting compassionately with prisoners. I did not see much compassion directed at the guards from the prisoners. A reason for this may be summed by a poem written by Les Ames, serving life. In his poem entitled “The correction officer of light” Les writes:
You give selflessly of yourself.
You direct without ordering.
And if a prisoner gives you lip,
You sass him right back –
Neither demeaning him or yourself.
Les continues describing the guard’s compassion and ends the poem:
Yet, if I display too much praise
And affection for you and others,
I will be locked in the hole
for singing a blatant love song
or, for being gay in more than spirit.
Guards do not seem to trust kind actions of prisoners directed towards them.
I did see more compassion of guards for prisoners in one mid-west prison. I don’t know how race influenced this relationship. The warden and the program director were both Black men. When I asked the program director about the prison’s more gentle approach of the guards towards the prisoners; he replied. “It took the warden and me years to train the COs to be more empathetic to the inmates.” And then he added, “It’s a slippery slope to prison that anyone of us could fall into.”
The only other prison where I saw compassion from guards to prisoners was on a mental health ward of a maximum-security men’s prison. There were full-time social workers, psychologists, and therapists on this particular unit. I wonder if the presence of these professionals trained in empathy offered other ways of treating prisoners.
The prisoner Merle was locked in solitary on the mental health unit for three months for the offense of urinating in the janitor’s closet. To my observation, it seemed peeing into the janitor’s sink was evident of Merle’s self-restraint compared to previous behavior; Merle had difficulty maintaining boundaries. This difficulty may have been a result of Merle being physically, mentally and sexually abused for years by his grandparents until he killed them when he was 18 years old. Apparently the administration of the prison (not the mental health staff) did not share my assessment of Merle’s behavior. Instead, they saw the need for punishment. However, one day, I smelled a cigarette burning on the ward. Responding to my surprise, the guard said, “I didn’t have the heart to tell Merle to put it out. He’s suffering.” This small act of mercy, seemingly simple, was in fact a major defiance that could have cost the guard his job.
Many of the answers describing examples of kindness across the border were kindness of guards. Tommy writes: “One day I went to the yard. I am a very light skinned white man and on this day I stayed in the sun for almost two hours. I was burned. The next day I returned from lunch and an officer called me to the desk and there was a Sergeant with her. She asked, ‘How did you get red?’, then, ’Does it hurt?’ She admonished, ‘Stay out of the sun.’ It touched my heart, this simple act of kindness. This was a Black female officer inquiring about the welfare of a white inmate with her supervisor standing there.”
In some instances these acts of kindness are experienced with a mixture of appreciation, confusion, and disgust. James writes about a guard being kind to him. “’Need more time? Asked the sergeant, as I was finishing up my meal. Everyone else in the row I was in, had already left and the chow hall was filling up fast. ‘If you do, you can move over there.’ As I picked up my tray and headed out I had a ridiculous urge to cry. That a guard, and a sergeant at that, treated me as if he thought I was a human being with kindness and consideration. And respect, even. It’s a sad thing to have to report that simple common decency exhibited by one man to another should evoke such an acute response. For a brief moment, I was allowed the luxury of being, for all intents and purposes, something other than a number. Immediately though, I felt conflicted. That I apparently ached for such an affirmation caused me to feel disgusted with myself for being so weak – so needy, while at the same time, savoring the experience.”
David writes about a guard being kind to his mother: “My mom was refused to visit (after driving two-hours) simply because she was wearing sandals without socks. On the way back to her car, an officer heard what was going on, went out and found my mom crying. She took her own socks off and gave them to my mom so she could visit me.”
Sometimes the guards initiate an experience of kindness by asking a prisoner to help out another prisoner. Walter wrote: “I am usually the designated barber in whichever prison I am housed. One day a CO entered into our building with an elderly man. From first glance he appeared to be approximately 60 years old. The man’s face was swollen and he had a black eye. His prison-issued clothing was bloodied and his hair was long and dirty. Then I heard my last name called loudly by the officer. He motioned me over and looked me straight in the eye, ‘This man was jumped in the other building by two young punks who were in disagreement with his grooming standards. He is now a resident of this building and if anything happens to him in my building, there will be hell to pay.’ Walter thought “my building” was arrogant but kept quiet. I was pissed that they had done that to an old man and I think the anger I had towards them turned into respect and love for this man.” Walter describes taking care of the old man – helping him shower and found some food for him. Walter continues, “and then a strange thing happened. Dudes, hardened criminals who didn’t have nothing for nobody started casing their cells and came back with things for ‘Pops.” Dudes came over and shook his hand and introduced themselves. Pops ended up being the best chess player on the yard and never lost a tournament, representing our building. A Vietnam vet, very knowledgeable and versed on the law. Helped many dudes file writs appeals, child custodies.
A major question becomes why some guards and staff have the capacity to show kindness to prisoners? When superficially asked, some guards suggest it was their age – they mellowed out. I don’t have much to conclude except that it would be an interesting conversation to have with staff.
Do sexual relationships extended across the border qualify as kindness? Some of the answers suggest prisoners saw sex as kindness, but that it also posed difficulties. Tony writes, “We used to have ladies and men come to visit us once a week through the Kiros program until the ladies started having relationships with the inmates. I’m not blaming the ladies. But it sure did hurt the Kiros program.”
Clarence describes a man from the outside writing to him to be his sexual pen pal (I’m not sure how a sexual pen pals work, particularly since the letters can be read by the guards and staff). Clarence sent me the letter, suggesting, “Give the letter to someone who is free, who may be able to share his life and wealth with them. Hopefully, he finds that someone he wishes to be with.” The man who gave his name and address in the letter was actually a known politician in a mid-west community.
Sex across the border can be used to redefine a more dangerous situation. Ronnie describes a situation in which kindness across the border is redefined as sex to deflect the primary concern: “A female guard wrote up a ticket for indecent behavior (for a particular prisoner) when a prisoner was taking a leak in his own cell when she walked by. Because of this ticket, the prisoner was denied his upcoming parole. Later when this female guard was closing the cells doors, this prisoner pulled her into his cell and beat the crap out of her. No one responded to her yells until one inmate finally went to the cell and pulled her out. For his act of kindness, this prisoner was given a disciplinary case for improper relationship with a guard.”
Other times, sex is just experienced as kindness and, as David writes, perhaps an example of “tea and sympathy” helping him develop a sense of his sexual self. “Having come to prison at 20 years old and remaining here for so long (I’m now 34) I’ve had numerous relationships with officers. Some were innocent – women looking at me like I was their own child – other, not so innocent – as if we were lovers. Another memorable person was a woman who I had a crush on and asked her to be my first as I was a virgin and didn’t want to die one. She thought I was insane, but eventually she sensed my sincerity and we became a couple. We were together for 3 of the toughest years for me, as I’d lost two relatives within a year of each other and was hurt. Knowing how much she risked to love me makes our relationship way beyond kindness.”
Obviously there is subterfuge in sexual relationships between prisoners and non-prisoners that are in violation of rules. There’s even a sign on the staff lounge wall of a maximum-security men’s prison stating, “Do not have sex with inmates,” should any of us forget. However, I can’t help wonder if sexuality between prisoner and non-prisoner is actually less threatening to the prison system than simple kindness. The system may understand the dynamics of sex better than the inherent ambiguity of kindness. Maybe that is why kindness in prison is constantly misinterpreted as sex – turning kindness into something understandable.
While I have been focusing upon the phenomenon of kindness, I have been grasping at ambiguity – the incarceration of kindness but the death of ambiguity. However, exploring a phenomenology of kindness with the prisoners seems less obscure and ideological then asking them to describe ambiguity or lack of it in their lives. How does one describe the natural ambiguity of living? Is this an experience transmittable into words?
As an artist, I am confronted with ambiguity every time I begin a painting or sculpture. I can only follow rules up to a point: open the studio door, decide to paint a particular subject, determine the size, gesso the canvas, and so on. At some point in the process, I have to leave prescription behind in order to create; thus, bringing something new into existence. If I do not enter this uncharted area of painting, the work becomes as flat as a paint-by-number piece.
Through teaching art in prison, I observed how ambiguity plays a role in both art and kindness. In art classes, the prisoners seemed challenged when asked to draw from life; asking them to use their own eyes and draw what they see. There is no formula for this approach to drawing and it makes them uncomfortable. Instead, prisoners (and most of the public who are not trained in art) often want how-to books providing step-by-step instructions or they draw from photographs that have already translated the three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional one; a translation which demands a leap of faith for the artist.
Like the creativity in art, kindness has no ultimate how-to instruction. Prescriptive kindness, like formulaic art, is affectively flat.
But, flatness is demanded by prison. In a maximum-security prison, a yellow line is painted on the corridor floors upon which prisoners are to follow. It leads to closed gates separating corridors. At these points, the prisoners will wait in line until it is ok’d by the guards to move through the gates. Many prisoners have been walking the yellow line and stopping at the gates for years; even though some are now shadows of the person who committed the crime.
In the super-maximum security men’s prison where every aspect of the prisoner’s day is prescribed, the prisoners are psychologically fragile; so much that when they drop a pencil they yell at me saying, “you made me do that!” To their understanding, this may be true – everything in prison has a clear cause and effect. I suggest to them that in assigning me as the cause, I get to control not only when they drop the pencil, but also when they get to pick those pencils up. Without personal accountability, freedom is denied. The prisoners stop yelling at me.
Because kindness does not have a cause and effect relationship, it can easily become the enemy in a system that survives on prediction and rules. Kindness may even be seen as an act of freedom.
Kindness does not effect change. Kindness creates change; non-conforming and non-linear. Potently there and not to be controlled. What happens if kindness as a phenomenon of solidarity were to emerge in prison – could it act as a free-floating medium for social change challenging the status quo?
About the guest contributor:
Treacy Ziegler is a regular contributor to the JAC 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. 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.