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.