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 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.

 

An important message from PAC’s manager — please read on!

Dear PAC Community,

I’m excited to share some big news with you! Over the coming months, the Prison Arts Coalition will undergo a transformation to incorporate as the Justice Arts Coalition (JAC), a 501c3 nonprofit organization. In the spirit of the vision that drove PAC’s founders, the JAC will become an organizing body for institutions and individuals across the globe that believe in the power of the arts to ignite change. The JAC will unite people at the intersection of the arts and justice, cultivating community among system-involved artists, their loved ones, educators, scholars, activists, and advocates.

Through hosting in-person trainings, workshops, and conferences, in addition to serving as an online network and archive for resources such as curricula, grant listings, and program evaluation materials, the JAC will foster a collective voice and increase visibility and advocacy for artists working in and around justice systems.

Woan Crocheting - Part 2 of Bars Triptych
by Carole Alden

The JAC’s development is the culmination of the efforts of a Steering Committee comprised of teaching artists and arts advocates that formed at the 2015 Arts in Corrections: Opportunities for Justice and Rehabilitation conference. It is being made possible with seed funding generously contributed by California Lawyers for the Arts and the Warhol Foundation, and fiscal sponsorship provided by The William James Association

You can look forward to changes here on the website. All of the current content will remain intact, but there will be new pages, resources, announcements about ways to get involved with and support the JAC through membership opportunities, donations, and events. We’ll be sharing updates via social media, and plan to roll out a crowdsourcing campaign in the near future, so be sure to follow PAC (soon to become the JAC!) on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to stay in the know. And, we’ll be introducing the JAC in June at Arts in Corrections: Reframing the Landscape of Justice. We hope to see you there!

White Tiger
White Tiger by Daniel Owens

I’m thankful to everyone who has helped to grow and shape PAC over the years. I’ve met so many inspiring people through my work behind the scenes here. These relationships have fueled me, and they serve as reminders that while all of the information, stories, and artwork that PAC has been able to share is incredibly important, it’s the human connection sparked by the sharing of these resources that matters most of all. I’m honored to be a part of the JAC’s efforts to expand and strengthen this web of community.

If you have questions about the JAC, or ideas for the founders to consider as we take our next steps, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at pacoalitionadmin@gmail.com

With gratitude,

Wendy Jason, PAC Manager

If you would like to contribute to the development of the JAC, please follow this link to make a tax-deductible donation through our fiscal sponsor. We need and value your support!

Seeking input on building a national prison arts association

Dear friends of The Prison Arts Coalition:

Building upon a new level of cultural awareness regarding the benefits of arts in corrections programs, we would like to know if an expanded national organization would be a valuable asset to you and the work you do.

In these early stages, we feel the association could offer the following to its members:

  • Raise awareness of programmatic efficacy
  • Host national or regional conferences
  • Share best practices
  • Foster community
  • Support, collect and disseminate relevant research
  • Offer professional development opportunities
  • What else can you imagine?

The following 5-minute survey is designed to help better understand the need for a national prison arts association and how it can best serve potential members like you.  Your input is incredibly valuable during this early stage.

National Prison Arts Survey

We are hoping to collect all responses by January 29th.

Thank you for your time!

This survey has been developed with input by an ad hoc steering committee of prison arts advocates and practitioners, including:

Cynthia Gutierrez – Barrios Unidos Prison Project

Ella Turenne – Artist, Activist, EducatorOccidental College

Freddy Gutierrez – Community Worker, Performing Artist

Illya Kowalchuk – Pop Culture Classroom

Jonathan Blanco – Oregon State Penitentiary Hobby Shop

Laurie Brooks – William James Association

Lesley Currier – Marin Shakespeare Company

Nate Henry-Silva – Imagine Bus Project

Nathalie Costa Thill – Adirondack Center for Writing

Treacy Ziegler – An Open Window

Victoria Sammartino – Voices UnBroken

Wendy Jason – Prison Arts Coalition

Alma Robinson – California Lawyers for the Arts

Weston Dombroski – California Lawyers for the Arts

I Wanted To Remind Us We Were People

by Elana Pritchard

About the guest blogger: Elana Pritchard is a cartoonist in Los Angeles.  Before she landed in jail she worked as an animator on Ralph Bakshi’s film, Last Days of Coney Island.  She is currently doing a Kickstarter to finish her animated cartoon, The Circus: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/341471863/the-circus

It’s been about a week since the comics I did inside the LA County jail system were first published in the LA Weekly, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the response.  People from all over the world have written to me expressing their support for what I have done and their contempt for inhumane practices for incarcerated peoples everywhere.  I have been in communication with the LA County Sheriff’s department and they have told me that due to these comics they have issued a new policy that all inmates must be given showers within 24 hours of entering the jail.  We are scheduled to meet next week to discuss further improvements.  And throughout all of this it seems the original, humble message of these comics is sticking: that we were people.  Even though we had a barcode on our wrist with a number and were called “bodies” by the staff, we were still people.

Many people in jail are still on trial and haven’t even been found guilty or innocent yet.  Many people made mistakes that you or I have made before in private, only they got caught.  There were mothers in there that missed their children.  There were kind people in there that cared about the arts and cared about each other.  I drew these comics to make us all laugh and remind us that even though there was a whole group of of people with badges and better clothes than we had telling us we didn’t matter… we DID matter and we WERE PEOPLE.

In that the comics were successful, and for that I am proud.

Elana Pritchard

All images were first published in the LA Weekly, 2015

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Prison Galleries: Imagining Justice from the Inside Out

About the guest blogger: Lisa Guenther is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University.  She facilitates a weekly discussion group with prisoners on death row at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution.  She is the author of Solitary Confinement: Social Death and its Afterlives (forthcoming from Minnesota University Press).

It all began with a word scrawled on paper: ART.

We were sitting in a circle of plastic chairs in Unit 2 of Riverbend Maximum Security Institution.  Every week, members of the community meet with prisoners on death row to discuss topics of mutual interest: the meaning of justice, the injustice of poverty and racism, and the possibilities for personal and collective healing and spiritual growth.  We call ourselves REACH Coalition.  REACH stands for “Reconciling Every human being And Cultivating Humanitarianism.”  But it also refers, quite literally, to our desire to reach across the prison walls, beyond the barriers of social inequality, towards a better world.  On this particular day, we were trying to figure out how to include more people in our conversations.  And the first word that came to mind was art.

It seems like everyone in prison is an artist.  They paint, they draw, they write poetry.  When they don’t have access to standard art supplies, they become even more creative, using toilet paper or white bread to create sculptures like the “mummy” in Derrick Quintero’s diorama or the animals in Dennis Suttles’ barnyard scene.  Richard Odom makes doll furniture out of discarded toilet paper rolls.  He says, “Society has flushed us down the toilet, but we can still make something beautiful with the leftovers.”

Some of the artists in this show have been drawing and painting for as long as they can remember.  Others started making art in prison, as part of their process of self-transformation, or just to pass the time.  Most of the pieces in this show have been made especially for this show, as part of our collective effort to reach out to the public, both to listen and to be heard.  Harold Wayne Nichols put it this way in our discussion the other day: “We may be on death row, and we may never see the outside again.  But the world still matters to us.  When we talk about “us,” we’re not talking about us as individuals, but us as members of society.”

Today, the United States incarcerates more of its own citizens than any other country in the world, and we are the only Western democracy to retain the death penalty.  Is this the society we want for ourselves and for others?  How do we break cycles of violence and find alternative responses to harm?  We invite you to join us in imagining the possibility of transformative justice, both from the inside out and from the outside in.  Let’s REACH for a better world.

Prison Galleries: Imagining Justice From the Inside Out

January 16 – February 14, 2013

Sarratt Gallery, Vanderbilt University

Website and online gallery:  http://rethinkingprisons.wordpress.com/art-from-tennessees-death-row/