wheat fields, Walla Walla

Where Kindness is Not Allowed

In my worldview kindness and justice are deeply connected. If I express kindness to another person, justice and compassion are created by the action because I am honoring and respecting the other person. I am giving of myself in love and compassion to another. I am able to receive kindness in return. This is the simple back and forth equation that I try to live by because it makes sense, it gives me hope and it works.

What happens when kindness is not allowed? Last month I made one of two annual visits to the “Big House,” the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, to visit my friend A. A. is 21 and has been living in the Big House for more than three years. I have been his only visitor during these years.

I have the routine down. I check in and go through security carrying only my car key, my driver’s license, and my food card. I wear non-revealing clothing, only two rings, one pair of earrings and shoes that are easy to slip on and off. I lock my car and enter the building about ten minutes before check in begins. I’ll be able to visit with A. until 5:30.

A young woman is in the lobby with an older woman, grandmother and granddaughter it turns out. The granddaughter is there to visit a friend. “He used to be the love of my life,” she tells me, “But now we are just friends. I moved to Michigan two months ago, but I’m back for a visit so I came to see him.” She is nervous. She hasn’t seen her friend in a couple of years. Her grandmother says the girl has never been to this prison. I explain the routine. She changes into another shirt she has brought with her because her loose blouse slid about her thin shoulders, revealing the straps of her camisole top. No “provocative” clothing allowed.

I ask her if she wants to get her friend something to eat from the vending machines in the visiting room. I explain about the food cards. She doesn’t have any cash on her to buy the card (for $5.00) or to add money to it that would then be deducted like a debit card when she put it in the machines for a soda and some chips. I tell her I will share mine. She assures me it will be okay. “I’m only staying a couple of hours,” she explains. “We have to get back.” Seattle was a five-hour drive if the weather is good. Grandma is going to wait for her in the car.

We continue to chat as we wait through the 45-minute check in process, sharing our stories of who we are and whom we are visiting. This is something I do each time I go. I meet someone and talk with them in part to pass the time and in part because I am interested in people. I believe that we are better for having made a connection with someone even if I never see the person again. It’s less tense in the waiting room when I talk with someone who is waiting to go inside.

Once in the visiting room (finally!), I purchase a soda and some chips for A. and bring them to our assigned table. I go over to the young woman and offer to get her something. We decide her friend would probably enjoy a coke and some Doritos. She thanks me and takes them to her table.

At last the men come through from their units for the visits. It was good to see A. We hug and begin talking right away, catching up and discussing his case. A couple hours pass. I go to the machines and get A. a hamburger. I’m heating it up in the microwave when a corrections officer comes up to me.

“Are you the person who bought food for someone else?” he asks.
“Yes,” I reply. My heart lurches a bit.
“Did you know you can’t do that?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Well, you can’t. I’m sure you were trying to be kind, but it is not allowed. You can be kind in the real world,” he added, “But this isn’t the real world.”

He went on to explain that the young woman’s friend could have put pressure on A. to buy him something to eat. This is called “strong arming” the officer says, and that is why being kind is not allowed.

I tell him I won’t do it again. I walk back to our table a bit rattled. I think about this incident on my long drive home.

There are indeed two worlds—my life and world on the “outs” and A.’s life and world “inside.” In fact, there are two worlds outside and another inside. I’ve known that for a long time.

Both outside worlds have kindness and love on the good days. Both worlds have days that don’t go so well. Both worlds are entitled to justice, abundance and human rights. The difference in the two worlds lies with which one has privilege, wealth and opportunity and which one has poverty, racism and oppression. Who lives in which world and what is it like to navigate through each world on a given day? The two worlds continue, side by side, two parallel universes, but are disconnected for the most part. The people in one world rarely connect with, or get to know, the people in the other. I am clear which world I inhabit and which world I visit.

And if my world on the outs is the “real” world as the corrections officer pointed out to me, then what would I, or he, call the other world inside? Is it the “unreal” world? It is real enough for those who live in it, I’m sure. I know it is a community, a place where men live and interact with one another sometimes for years and years. Is this community less “real” than mine?

Is it an “unkind” world, since the officer explained that I couldn’t be kind in that world? It certainly appears to be an unkind world to those of us who never go inside. Based on many books and articles by people who live in this world I would not be wrong to call it an unkind, unreal world, a world of darkness.

Yet I know of specific kindnesses that men living in that world are doing for other men inside, including sharing extra food, giving someone a phone call who has no money to pay for the phone, sharing knowledge gleaned from the law library, and mentoring.

I wondered about the officer and the other staff. What is it like to pass from their own “real” world to the world inside the prison and back again, day after day? Which world is more real over time? Which world is the “real” world and for whom, I wondered?

I decided I will continue to do kindnesses in my world because it matters. The officer was kind enough to not ask me to leave as he could have done. I was thankful for that.

I will continue to connect with others, because it matters. I am glad I met the young woman and her grandmother because human connections matter. I’m sure she will bring cash next time if she comes again. I’m glad I spent the whole day with A. this time.

It is hard to visit people who live inside. Making connections and offering kindness helps everyone feel less alone, less stigmatized and more supported. According to the rules, I can’t buy anyone food but I can still reach out to strangers in the waiting room, that world between worlds. We can connect in simple human conversations. Kindness, compassion and justice can be offered and received.

What would it be like of we connected and acted with kindness in every world we encounter? What would change in each world? Would all worlds become one?