I don’t mean to sound trite or apologetic — which means I probably will — but facts are facts. Prisoners are told:

  • What to do
  • What they’ve done wrong
  • What punishments they must suffer as a result of their bad behavior
  • What problems they haveĀ  and how to address them

And they have friends who (in the American vernacular) ‘bust their balls’ or (in the British vernacular) ‘take the piss’ out of them. Only occasionally, as a prison employee, do you hear a thank-you, words of encouragement, or praise from one inmate directed at another.

In my workplace, I emphasize praise where it is due. On my better days, I emphasize praise where it is needed.

It was a lifer who taught me this about myself. About four years ago, my Inter-library Loan clerk came to my office with a comic he clipped from a newspaper. In the comic, the main character was saying ‘thank-you’ over and over to one of the other characters. I’m sitting there wondering, “Why is he showing me this?” I finally asked, and the clerk said, “I saw this and immediately thought of you. I said ‘What does Bill say all the time?’ ‘Thank you.'”

Well, that gave me pause. I never thought of myself as particularly grateful, and would never say that I showed my gratitude out of the ordinary way. And the more I thought about this, I realized that this self-examination was true. I never thought that I went out of my way to say ‘thank you.’ But I said it enough so that it made a good impression on this man.

And that was my lesson learned. The incarcerated women and men working for you are so starved for sincere words of courtesy and gratitude that the smallest amount makes a positive impression.

As correctional educators, we were always talking about making a positive difference in the lives of prisoners, and here in our daily power were words — simple words that uplifted and encouraged and were gratefully received each time they were spoken.

Some nights I used to leave the prison and self-indulgently worry if anything I did could ever help anyone there. With this new knowledge, all I could do was remember those times and feel ashamed. Common courtesy was all that was required, and I was too stupid to know it.

I looked up at this very tall man — with goddamn tears in my eyes! — and said “Thank you.” He laughed and said “Thank you.”


  1. It kind of makes you stop and reflect on how many people helped you in some way today and whether you took the time to thank them for their efforts.

    • I often think of it this way — consider the things in your life that went your way, and think of the people who helped you ‘behind the scenes’ that you’ll never meet or ever know about. People in your family or stable of friends, and even strangers or acquaintances who decided that you deserved a break.

      We owe debts of gratitude to so many unsung champions in our lives.

      That’s why if you can return kindness, you must. You must do it in honor of every anonymous person who helped you along the way. Somehow or other, we’re all connected.

      Prisoners are grateful for the job you’ve hired them to do – it keeps them out of mischief, it keeps them from going mad with boredom, and it gives them a chance to create a jailhouse identity for themselves.

      Tell them “Thank you.”

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