The Incarceration of Kindness – Installment 1

by Treacy Ziegler

Still from the animation – “The naked mole-rat’s journey.” Created by the artists across the United State participating in the Prisoner Express art program – a distant learning project. Gary Farlow, animator of this particular still.

 

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.

        Douglas Oliver

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.

Communities of Caring through Choral Singing: an update from the Oakdale Prison Choir

by Mary Cohen, PhD

After attending an East Hill Singers concert in January 2002 in Overland Park Kansas, my curiosity for Prison Choirs began. In graduate school at the University of Kansas, I spent a lot of time in Prisons, literally and figuratively—learning from Elvera Voth, the Inside and Outside Choir members of the East Hill Singers, and creating a theoretical framework for a Pedagogy for Prison Choirs.
Now, at the University of Iowa, we’ve developed a unique Community of Caring with the Oakdale Prison Choir. It’s provided a space for outside singers to heal, connect, and express, and spaces for inside singers to reconnect with family, create new social connections, and develop new educational programming. Some of these programs include a Writers’ Workshop, Parenting Class, Yoga Classes, and a series of credit-bearing classes called the Liberal Arts Beyond Bars University project.
The Oakdale Prison Community Choir began in 2009 with 22 inside (incarcerated) singers and 22 outside (women and men from the community and the University of Iowa) singers. We have completed our 21st season (two per year), and here is a brief summary of 2018:
  • A new Greetings from Iowa 8 minute documentary from Iowa Public Television is out. This video is a great introduction to the choir.
  • The folks from Iowa Public Television heard about the Oakdale Choir because of our participation in Heartbeat Opera’s New York May 2018 production of Beethoven’s Fidelio. Their revision of this opera had a Black Lives Activist wrongfully arrested. In their stage production, they wove voices from 6 different prison choirs who each audio recorded a section of the “Prisoner’s Chorus.” They also had showed video footage from four of the choirs during the “Prisoner’s Chorus” portion of the opera. See the Oakdale Choir website for links to this story.
  • On November 12, we hosted a Learning Exchange at the Oakdale prison with the Soweto Gospel Choir, Maggie Wheeler (TV actress from “Friends” and also a singer/songwriter from LA), and Sara Thomsen (another singer/songwriter from Duluth, MN). It was THE musical highlight of my career, so far. A research team and I collected data to study this model of a “Learning Exchange,” rather than a traditional concert.
  • This fall I led a Listening Session with a group of survivors of violent crime to hear what they think about music education in prisons. As a result of that session, we hosted a survivor of sexual abuse to come into a choir rehearsal and share his story. We had the director of victims’ services and restorative justice from Iowa Department of Corrections there who coordinated both the listening session and this event.
  • The choir sang and I spoke at the inaugural Negative to Positive Graduation on December 4. This new program was created by inside singer/songwriter and lifer, Michael Blackwell. Its goal is to promote positivity. Michael is featured in the documentary from Iowa Public TV.
  • We have a songwriting and reflective writing component to the choir. As of Fall 2018, we have created 143 original songs, and the choir has performed 76 of these songs. Many original songs are available on the choir website, and we have choir newsletters comprised of writing reflection pieces also on the choir website.
  • Last: the prison administration allowed outside singers to bring homemade treats to our last rehearsal of the season this past Tuesday. The men decorated the gym with a fake fireplace, made cards for all the outside singers, and I have never seen such a feast inside a prison!

 

 

 

Making Meaning: a caged bird sings

by Page Dukes

I was released from prison last May, after serving ten years for a crime I committed as a heroin-addicted teenager. I have spoken publicly many times since, about the decisions and circumstances that led me to the criminal justice system. However, at the Art for Justice Forum held at Emory University Law School, I was asked to talk about the role music has played in my life, how it both kept me free on the inside and has helped me to have confidence and livelihood in my newfound freedom.

I was around music my entire life. The daughter of musicians, I toured the country and sang on stage with my mother from as early as 3 years old. I played the cello in elementary school, switching to the guitar when I discovered punk rock. My best friend and I formed a band when we were 13 and played on stages (with big black X’s on our hands) all over Atlanta. It was around that time that I began to “experiment” with drugs— my ambition to use matched and eventually surpassed my ambition to play music. By 18 I was shooting a deadly mix of heroin and cocaine daily, and by my 21st birthday I’d committed armed robbery.

In the jail, I got clean for the first time in many years. I realized all I had given up, all I had to lose and to live for. At the Art for Justice forum, I remembered the time a volunteer let me play her guitar after a jailhouse church service—how grateful I had been to her, how I probably scared her with my weeping, and how that moment was the first time I had felt anything in a long, long time. That was perhaps the first in a series of releases—in which I opened up a little at a time, and began to grow, in the darkest, dankest of places: the basement of the Fulton County Jail at 901 Rice Street.

There were long years when I didn’t get to play at all. I sang a lot when it was all I had. I remember finding spaces where the acoustics carried and amplified my voice— in the dungeon below the courthouse, where we sat shackled, anxiously awaiting an uncertain fate, or to be sent back without any answers at all; or in the visitation room, where we waited to be “shaken down,” having watched our families leave crying, trying to reassure them that we were okay.

It was in that room that I last saw Kelly Gissendanner, who was killed after 18 years on death row, having turned her life around and become a pillar of hope and encouragement in the prison community. She’d been visiting with her children in the room where they kept her quarantined from the rest of us. After her death warrant was issued, they had stopped letting her attend church and classes with us. I knew it may be the last time I would see her, so I sang for her. I cried, and she cried, and she thanked me. In Kelly’s last hours, she sang “Amazing Grace.”

Music is something that could not be taken from us. In a place designed to dehumanize you, where you’re told you are worthless—a uniform, a number, a discarded sub-citizen—you must make your own meaning. The system is not designed to rehabilitate, but to “correct–” to punish. I knew where my meaning was—music was my first religion—and I also believed that I would survive and thrive no matter how large the obstacles I had placed in my way.

How many others bought the view that their lives were worthless? That they were defined by their crimes, that they will never be anything more than a number, a statistic, an “offender.” The system will strip you of everything, even your humanity, if you let it. And once that happens what do you have left to lose?

The first panelist, Rachel May, a co-founder of Synchronicity Theatre, hosts theater workshops, where they give young girls in juvie the platform to tell their own stories. I remembered young girls who were in solitary confinement until their eighteenth birthdays. I remembered the ones who felt they had nothing to lose, facing long sentences, longer even than the one I had faced in my youth. And I hope that they find the freedom I did in music and in art and in words, that they will inspire others inside, and one day speak to an audience who wants to know how they made it through.

Another panelist had been making art since a childhood teacher had encouraged him to do so. In prison, he honed his portraiture skills, capturing the character of each person who lived in his unit, in graphite on paper. Like music, it was more than just a talent. It helped him to know who he was, and how he could serve a purpose in a void of meaning. It also helped him to develop his skill—one that would sustain him when he faced the task of finding work with a record.

I sang and played in the chapel services for my last three years at Lee Arrendale State Prison. I’ve since met women who tell me they remember hearing me sing in church— and they thanked me. It humbled me, that my voice and my music could have such an effect, could be a conductor for the same peace, beauty and transcendence that it brought me.

I talked and talked and talked at the Forum, until I realized I had taken up all the time. It was strange and wonderful to be asked about my experience with music in prison. The transformative power of art is no new idea—everyone has felt it, and yet we forget that the people who have been condemned, hidden out of sight and out of mind, need it too. The artist in a world without color, the musician in a room with only her voice bouncing off cement walls, the writer stripped down to the basics of pen and paper and his words—they are bound and confined, but their inner lives are rich, and they matter.

About the guest contributor:

Page Dukes is a formerly incarcerated writer, musician and college student. She grew up in Atlanta, the daughter of a touring singer/ songwriter who brought her along on the road during school breaks. She experienced life on the road with her mom and played in her own band back home, but started using drugs in her early teens, and by the age of 18 was hopelessly addicted to heroin. She committed armed robbery at 20 and served the mandatory minimum sentence of ten years in prison. While incarcerated she taught writing classes in the GED program, studied theology with the Atlanta Theological Association, trained and re-homed shelter dogs with the Forever Friends Canine Rescue, and performed with the Voices of Hope Choir. She was released last May and since has studied journalism and philosophy, worked as a reporting intern at the Marshall Project in New York this summer and the publications chief at the Roar, Piedmont College’s student media. As a founding member of the Athens Reentry Collaborative, she and several post-incarcerated peers work with academics and advocates to provide resources and support to reentering citizens in Athens, Georgia. She recently celebrated 11 and a half years clean.

About the Art for Justice Forums:

California Lawyers for the Arts was awarded one of 30 grants from the new Art for Justice Fund to facilitate six Art for Justice Forums in Michigan, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, New York and California during 2018. These one-day forums are designed to engage the arts in justice reform efforts and increase support for arts in corrections programs, as well as delinquency prevention and re-entry services. More than 200 persons, including elected legislators, artists, returned citizens, educators, arts and justice reform organizations, and others participated in the first two forums at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on April 3 and at the Houston Museum of African American Culture on July 14 . A short video of the Michigan Art for Justice Forum is linked here. Videos of the plenary panel sessions are also available here. The Defender Network.com published photographs from the Texas Art for Justice Forum, while the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition summarized the day’s discussions in a blog report.