The Slippery Slope of Kindness

by Treacy Ziegler

The following continues the installments on kindness in prison. I asked prisoners participating in the Prisoner Express distant learning project to describe different experience of kindness; 1.kindness that felt sincere;  2. kindness that seemed insincere in that it was a means to getting something else; 3. kindness that started out as kindness but turned violent; and 4. kindness between prisoners and non-prisoners within the prison system. The first two experiences of kindness can be read at above hyperlinks. The following explores the third experience

“The meeting of another,” painting on panel, Nathan Riggs

In a windowless classroom of the super-maximum security prison, I sit alone with Marc waiting for other prisoners to arrive. I’m surprised to see Marc at this super max prison. He was in my prison art class at a medium-secure prison where I also volunteered. I had just seen him the month before and don’t know why he is now at this higher security level prison. I don’t ask.  

The other prisoners never arrive for art class. This is not particularly surprising as guards at this prison often test my reactions to certain situations: I’ve been locked in a room with lifers – those prisoners with life sentences – where I am given no means of getting out of that room. At other times, the guards “forget” I am having a class. They don’t issue call-out passes for the students and I sit there for an hour waiting for no one. I figured this time the guards locked me in the classroom with Marc to see what I would do. (Who knows what they suspected!?) The guards’ ploys against volunteers are numerous. However, I’m not particularly bothered by this incident; happy to conduct a private drawing lesson with Marc. He is a talented artist and works hard in the class. As Marc works on his drawing, he explains why he’s in the super-max. He was involved in a fight with another prisoner at the medium-secured prison. Marc says,“I beat him up pretty bad. I was just trying to be kind to him, but the guy misinterpreted me…and then it went really bad.”

Ronnie tells another story describing kindness-gone-wrong: “I was comfortable working as a janitor because it helped keep my locker full. The new guy was a pretty big youngster from Austin, Texas. He did not have any possessions when he came. Out of kindness of my heart I told him that if he was hungry to just get something out of the locker. Then I went back to work. That act of kindness was soon interpreted as an act of weakness. In the days to come he started to try and assert dominance in the cell. So I pulled him to the side and warned him that he was playing with fire and when you play with fire, then you are bound to get burned. But he brushed my warning to the side and continued to flex his muscles. After three strikes, I sent him to the hospital where he stayed in a coma for nine days.”

There are numerous stories of misguided kindness. Logan writes: “I had a Christian cellmate (known as Jesus) who was ‘generous to a fault’ as they say, especially for the penal environment. One day (after he’d had 3 radios of his stolen because he’d never stand his ground to get one back) he noticed this new African-American prisoner (about 23 years old) didn’t have a radio. So he tells me, ‘The Lord is moving me to give that kid a radio.’ Against my advice, this cellmate went to the kid’s cell, handed him a radio and said, ‘Here, this is for you. Jesus loves you. Remember that!’ Well, the kid was stunned of course so after he thought about it, he (a recruit for the Crips) goes to the Crips and asks, ‘What do I do?’  They tell him to beat the hell out of him. The kid’s first blow was smashing the radio across his face.”

Armando speaks of an incident of kindness interpreted as an insult by the person receiving kindness: “There is one man who’s always in arguments and thinking he’s being picked on. When I share thoughts in a nice way, he interprets it as a sarcastic remark. What was a sincere comment becomes ridicule. If you give him food, it becomes an innuendo of being a bum or poor; soap becomes a subtle sign that he stinks; an offer becomes a trap. Etc.etc. Kindness can become suspect to a paranoid mind. Truth is, often times people give but consciously or unconsciously they expect something in return. You hear it in the remark “After I’ve done for you….”

Simple acts of kindness can be misinterpreted. Scooter writes: “One time I was trying to be kind to someone and it almost cost me my life. It was mail call and the boss we had working the tank doesn’t like inmates. If she called your name for mail and you didn’t hear her you would not get your mail that day. I was standing there waiting on her to call my bin number when she called one of my neighbors. So being a nice guy I got his mail and took it to him. He got all bent out of shape because I handled his mail and he decided to pull out a shank and tried to stab me. Needless to say, I learned my lesson about touching other peoples’ things (hah).”

In these descriptions, kindness is interpreted as weakness with the opportunity to take advantage of the other person. But that’s the thing; kindness does demand vulnerability. Kindness demands a vulnerability – call it weakness – of both parties; the giver, who is extending him/herself to someone who might reject the offering; and the receiver, who by accepting kindness, admits a need.

One of the difficulties is that there are no rules on how kindness is to be exchanged between two people. This lack of rules for kindness stands in contrast to how respect can be developed in prison. Gaining respect in prison has a specific structure based upon rules dictating the behavior of the individuals. It is a structure upon which – according to the prisoners in my classes – many prisoners grow dependent. But as Fred, a student in my class, suggests;  “When they get out, they try to find this same formula for getting respect, but don’t get it and this becomes hard on many.  They get angry on the street, often act out in response, and then get sent back in here.”

Unlike respect, kindness is a funny thing. It cannot be formulized into the same “if this, then that” equation that is possible in respect development. An element of kindness is the lack of personal gain for the giver; my actions cannot be considered kind if my actions are for my benefit. Nor can kindness be formulized into rules dictating how I should act in a certain situation; I cannot be forced into acting kind. Likewise, rules dictating how the receiving person must react to my kindness also undermine the experience of kindness. Kindness asks to remain uncharted, unexpected, and unpredictable  – a difficult task in a system that imposes rules upon every aspect of a prisoner’s life.

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.  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.

Just Art Initiative

by Annabel Manning

As part of the Jail Arts Initiative, I give a series of art workshops based on the “Nana” using Nikki de Saint Phalle’s “Nana” figures as a departure point. This way incarcerated adult participants can explore the themes of identity and agency through the female form.  Their “Nana’s” become portraits based on important female figures in their own lives (e.g., mother, grandmother, wife, daughter, sister, partner, lover). They are accompanied by “I am” poems as a way to think about their own identity and situation using text.

The Jail Arts Initiative (JAI) is a partnership I co-initiated in 2011 with the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art (Charlotte) and the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office.

I give art workshops inspired by Joan Miro’s  painting, “Ladder of Escape,” series of artworks. The ladder becomes a metaphor for negotiating two worlds such as terrestrial and celestial, everyday life and imaginary life, or Latinx culture and U.S. culture. See Ladder of Escape folder for artwork examples.

I also teach art workshops inspired by Miro’s painting, Hope of a Condemned Man. During the last years of Franco’s reign in Spain, Miró painted a triptych in support of the young anarchist Salvador Puig Antich, who was executed by Garotte.  We explore how this triptych might relate to participating incarcerated adults and their own situation, by creating artworks re-interpreting Miro.

As part of my Lewis Hine Fellowship with Duke University, I have been working with the Men’s Empowerment Program (MEP) at Harlem Community Justice Center. MEP creates opportunities for young men of color in Harlem to heal, build self-identity, pursue individual goals, and work with peers to strengthen their communities. My role is to teach these young men artistic tools (printmaking, photography, the written word, photography, audio, and other mediums) as a way to approach these goals . MEP participants have all been impacted by the justice system in some way.

MEP interns are constructing collages based on Romare Bearden’s “Block” painting series. Bearden was a Harlem-based artist and activist who created artwork that visualized and commented upon black life in Harlem. Likewise, in the spirit of Bearden, MEP participants are creating collages based on their own neighborhoods. They take their photos, photos from Harlem based magazines and newspapers, paint, patterned paper, and text.  Then they interview each other about their blocks and this audio becomes an important component to the visual pieces.

The “Block” pieces were exhibited at the Harlem Community Action Center in East Harlem.

About the guest contributor:

Born in Mexico and raised there and in South America, Annabel Manning’s role as a social- practice artist is shaped by the needs of the communities with whom she collaborates to find ways for individuals to represent themselves, whether in jails, restorative justice centers, pre- schools, schools, hospitals, or art centers. In 2011, she helped to create a Spanish-language “Jail Arts Initiative” at two Charlotte-Mecklenburg County (NC) Jails in collaboration with the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art and the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office. For the past four years, she organized, with ArtsPlus in Charlotte (NC), a bilingual art and literacy program for Latinx families and their preschooler children.

Annabel uses photography, printmaking, painting, poetry, audio, and other tools in collaboration with individuals to express their experiences with economic and physical hardships as they struggle for recognition, respect, and rights in society.

Currently, she is a Duke University Lewis Hine Fellow working at the Harlem Community Justice Center. As part of this fellowship, Annabel is developing art projects with the Justice Center’s Men’s Empowerment Program (MEP), which works with young men of color between the ages of 18-24. In addition to creating self-portrait monoprints, they are creating audio collages based on photography, videography, and audio, around Romare Bearden’s concept of “The Block.” Ultimately, MEP hopes to digitize the blocks and install them on fencing surrounding an area of the Wagner public housing development where the Justice Center’s Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety is planning to create a community hub.

Annabel Manning
Duke University, Lewis Hine Fellow
Harlem Communiy Justice Center
annabelmanning.com
https://www.instagram.com/annabelfmanning/
https://www.instagram.com/mep_nyc/


Celebrating a successful opening night…and a video launch!

by Wendy Jason, Managing Director of the Justice Arts Coalition

On Saturday, May 25th, at Rhizome DC, the Justice Arts Coalition celebrated the opening of Becoming Free, our first exhibition of works by incarcerated artists. We were joined by nearly 125 community members, each one helping to fill the space with warmth, care, and a genuine appreciation for the six artists, their stories, and their work. Quite a few guests took the time to write notes to the artists, which I will be mailing off this week. The sense of validation and connection that comes from receiving this feedback means the world to them.

Members of the Tributary Project set the tone for the night with their infectious rhythms and gorgeous melodies, and friends from local partner organizations Free Minds Bookclub and Voices Unbarred read poetry — both their own, and pieces written by men in a writing class at a nearby prison. We screened two short films by Logan Crannell, and showed our own film, Making our Meaning — which was beautifully edited by Logan — for the first time. Much of the artwork was for sale, and each of the artists has generously offered to donate a portion of the proceeds to the JAC. Local businesses 3 Stars Brewing Co., Green Plate Catering, Mark’s Kitchen and Olive Lounge contributed everything we needed to stay well fed and hydrated, and Ecoprint donated graphic design and printing services resulting in vibrant flyers for the event and new informational brochures to have on hand. If you’re in the DC area and would like to visit the exhibit, which will be up until June 22, please contact me at wendy@thejusticeartscoalition.org.

Check out more photos from the opening here, and please watch (and share!) the video below!

If you joined us for the opening, and have photos or videos you’re willing to share with us, we’d love to see them! Please email me at wendy@thejusticeartscoalition.org. Thank you!

Becoming Whole: the Joy of Creation

by Tomás

I find it incredibly difficult to describe what it is like being an artist in prison. There are so many physically and emotionally conflicting paradoxes at play. If I were never imprisoned, I would have, most likely, never taken the time to explore the artist aspect of myself. On the other hand, my environment places many restrictions on my creative process. I can’t just create whatever I want to. I am limited to certain resources that I am allowed to purchase and subjects that I am allowed to draw or paint. These limitations are frustrating at the best of times but do not diminish my gratitude for the joy of creation. The best way to describe all of this is to tell the story of the most meaningful painting I have done in prison.

It all started when there was a change to the monetary system in my prison. Although inmates are not allowed to purchase things from each other, they do. It is hard to stop the entrepreneurial spirit, especially among a group of people known for their hustling. Last year, the value of our main form of currency, postage stamps, was raised and that change left a glut of old stamps that no longer had any value. These stamps were worn, used by hundreds of inmates over the years, and frankly, beautiful. They fascinated me so I decided to “paint” the American flag using these old, worthless stamps as a medium. I wanted to show another side of the American economy, one that most people don’t see, and through that, the nature of prison itself.

I really love this part of creating art. The ideas are starting to form into a tangible, living thing. At this point, I am no longer myself, no longer in prison, but an active participant in a conversation that has been going on for the length of human history. A conversation that can trace its roots back to the first markings on cave walls. I am filled with a desire to express my experience of life in a way that will transcend my own life. This is what art is about for me. And I love it. This love sustains me through all the ups and downs that come with making something that has never been made before.

I started off by letting everyone know that I was interested in doing an art piece and was looking for as many old stamps as I could get my hands on. Most know me as a nice, but eccentric artist, and several people were willing to help me by giving what they had. Still not having enough, I was forced to trade items from commissary to people who needed motivation to donate to my artistic endeavor. This quickly became an expensive project. I then researched the official dimensions of the American flag in the U.S. code found in the law library. It turns out that there are very strict rules and I was glad to learn them. Armed with this information, I cut a piece of canvas that I had purchased ahead of time. I am the only artist here who stretches his own canvas as most can only afford the student grade canvas panels since all art supplies have a thirty percent markup added by the prison. After measuring out my lines on the unprimed canvas, I decided to paint the white strips of the flag and leave the rest of the space as unfinished canvas. The emptiness will be filled in with stamps or left as negative space.

Once the canvas was prepped, I needed to find a place to work. I am very fortunate to have an easel to paint on in the recreational building, but for this project I needed a flat surface. There is only one table available in the art room, and it is in too high of demand for me to monopolize for several hours. So, I folded up the canvas and snuck it back into my living space on a different floor. We are only allowed to paint in the art room and what I did was very much against the rules. One of the first lessons I learned in prison was rules are flexible and that most guards don’t care what you do… until they do. Finally in my room, while using my bed as a work desk, I lost myself to the wonders of art making. Every now and then I would hear the jingle of keys and try to hide what I was doing from the patrolling guard. Most likely, he knew that I was not doing anything really bad and left me alone. Finally the piece starts to fit all together. The stamps were purposefully falling out of place, emphasizing the crumbling nature that is so prevalent in the prison system. Still, I felt that the overall message wasn’t showing through. At this point, inexplicably, an inmate whom I had never talked to before stopped by my room and asked me what I was doing. I explained the piece and the problem I was having. He quickly pointed out the I could move one stamp down and it would solve my problem. He was right! And then he was gone. I never did talk to that man again, but that is a common prison experience, randomness. Finally finished, I spent several hours gluing the stamps down, then rolled it up and snuck it back into the art room.

I was so happy with the finished product. It really had the feel of the prison economy and was visually striking. I felt as if I added something substantial to this world and transcended being in prison. We can’t just mail out art projects but have to wait till special days when the recreation officer in charge of the art program can inspect and sign off on them. So I waited, and then mailed out as I have done many times over these years. But my parents never got the package. Weeks went by, and nothing! Finally, I found out that the officer who approved the project didn’t appreciate my use of stamps in an art piece, and without telling me, confiscated my painting. I sought out a higher level prison official to find out what I rule I broke. They then accused me of trying to export currency from the institution and said that my work was to be destroyed. Oh the irony! It would have been funny if it wasn’t so frustrating and painful. I pled my case several times but was told that the painting was a threat to the security of the institution. When that phrase is used, that is the end of the line and the decision is permanent. My favorite painting, one created to comment on the unseen nature of prison, will never itself be seen by the outside world.

And that, essentially, is what it is like being an artist in prison. I still grieve the loss of my painting. At the same time, I feel more whole having made it. When I paint something, I never know if any one will ever see it, but the act itself is incredibly satisfying and fulfilling. Before coming to prison I was a mess. I was so busy trying to destroy my life while at the same time trying to maintain it. There was no time for self-introspection or doing something self-affirming. Now incarcerated, I have the time, and art is the vehicle that provides for both. With this powerful tool, I finally feel like a productive member of society, even if I have been removed from it.


Click each image to read a statement from the artist.