“The Prison Diaries of Arthur Longworth” by Arthur Longworth

one:  where I am

Sunday, July 27th
(first day of diary)


I suppose I should start by telling you where I am. This is an
old prison (well over a hundred years old) and it would be better
suited as a historical site, than a place to keep prisoners. It’s
falling apart. The state wanted to close it years ago because it
cost too much to operate, but they can’t, Even though they are
constantly building new prisons and adding to the ones they
already have, there are too many of us.

They have nowhere else to put us.

The massive Romanesque architecture of the prison’s
buildings, gun towers, and the thirty foot wall that surrounds us
is composed of worn red brick. Millions of them. The mortar that
has for so long held them together is falling out. In places, the
bricks have separated in distinct fault lines. Weeds have taken
root between them and sprout directly from the sides of buildings
and the wall. It’s a funny sight.

There is a contrast in the wall between the uppermost
section—which was replaced after it broke apart and toppled into
the big yard ten years ago during an earthquake—and the rest of
it which is covered with a dark, crusty type of moss. The contrast
is becoming less apparent though. Long streaks of rust from the
razor wire that crowns the top of the wall have stained the new
section and the moss is beginning to encroach.

I’m not as old as the prison (43 now) but there are times I
feel like it because prison is all that I know. I have been in since I
was eighteen. That is, if you don’t count the juvenile institutions I
spent my childhood in. Longer, if you do. Looking back it seems
like a long time. I’m conscious that I’m swiftly approaching the
limit of a prisoner’s life expectancy—which isn’t the same as that
of a free person’s.

two: proximity
Monday, July 28th

My celly, Bucky, began vomiting a few days ago. He’s in the
infirmary now with some kind of food poisoning. He isn’t the only
one who got it, so he has company.

I wouldn’t wish a sickness like that on anyone but, I have to
admit, his absence from the small place that is our cell is a bit of a
relief. I am less distracted, able to write more, and can get off my
bunk whenever I want, instead of the way we have to do it when
there are two of us…taking turns.

It isn’t that I don’t like Bucky, or care what happens to him. I
do. He came highly recommended (my friend Jimmy vouched for
him). After my last celly was transferred, the cell house sergeant
told me I would have to find another, or he would find one for
me. I had Bucky move in later that day.

Bucky came to prison as a juvenile with a four year sentence,
but in the few years he has been here six more have been added
to it because of his behavior (and I suspect he will stretch it to
more than that before he is through). He gets into trouble
because he’s afflicted with what used to be called in my time
“hyperactivity”, now ADHD. They give him Ritalin in an attempt to
control it, but he sells the pills. He has no other source of money
–no parents, he was raised by the state.

You may wonder why I choose to live with a prisoner like
Bucky, afflicted as he is and only nineteen years old. But, the
truth is, I am more comfortable around him than I would be
around someone who wasn’t sent to prison until he was older. I
have patience for Bucky because I understand him…at least the
circumstances that brought him to prison, because they are not
much different from the ones that brought me here when I was
his age.

I have to yell at Bucky sometimes to take a shower because
he forgets, or to wash his socks. But, besides that, he isn’t a
problem. He’s trustworthy and his word is good. What more
could I ask?

The problem isn’t my celly, it’s that this prison has the
smallest cells in the system—we literally live on top of each other
here. State officials know they aren’t supposed to put more than
one prisoner into a cell this small. An injunction was issued by a
Federal Court years ago that kept them from doing it—until the
state got it lifted by telling the court that prisoners were
volunteering to be crammed in together. Bastards.

I’ve pondered writing to the court to tell them the truth, but I
know it wouldn’t be wise. Others have tried it and everyone
knows what happened to them. Because of the overcrowding,
more than a thousand of our state’s prisoners are housed in
other states (long distances away), and I would quickly find
myself with them if I were to write the court.

Bucky is a decent celly, but I am going to enjoy this time while
he is gone. I don’t miss being forced into such close proximity
with anyone.

three: birds of a feather
Wednesday, July 30th

We were allowed out into the Big Yard this morning and I went
with the hope of catching sight of the young osprey that has been
hanging around the prison recently. Last week he landed on one
of the lights above the wall and I was able to get a good look at
him. He at me, as well.

No sight of the osprey today though. It was warm early and the
only birds to see were starlings, a small group in the grass on the
far side of the yard. They are always here because they don’t
migrate, the prison is their home. I have watched enough
generations of them live out their lives here, go from chicks to
death, to be able to tell you with certainty that they don’t go
anywhere.

I like to watch birds—which is strange when you consider that I
have spent many years of my life in IMU (maximum-security)
where I was unable to see them. There you are confined only to a
small cell, you don’t get to see outside. Then again, maybe it is
because of that experience that I have gained this appreciation for
them. I don’t think I had it before they put me in that place.

The starlings in the yard this morning were parents with their
offspring. Although the young ones were no smaller than the
adults, they were easy to pick out because of their coloring and
the way they behaved. While the adults search the grass for
food—thrusting their heads down into it and looking around, then
taking a few steps and repeating the process—their fledglings
follow them raising a ruckus, squawking and shaking their wings.
The only time the youngsters were quiet was when one of their
parents stuffed a bug in their throats. As soon as they got it
down, they would begin squawking again.

Sometimes when I am watching birds, thoughts come to me—
like the one I had this morning. As I watched the starlings, I
couldn’t’t help but recognize a correlation between them and a
certain kind of prisoner—those who were raised by the state in its
institutions. They, too, were brought up to be where they are.
Free people, I suspect, would think it ridiculous to say that, but
that is only because they don’t know what it is like—what growing
up in those places teaches you, and what it doesn’t. It doesn’t
prepare you for a life in civilized society. The only thing a young
person raised by the state is fit for is this right here. I’ve been in
long enough to see that cycle play itself out too, generation after
generation—I’m thinking of Bucky now, one of the most recent
generation.

Is it fair to write this? To believe it? My own generation comes
to mind now, those who grew up with me in those places. Yes, I
think it is fair…because I can’t think of a single instance where it
wasn’t true.

four: home
Thursday, July 31st

It is raining today. When we’re locked in our cells we can’t see
outside, but I know it is raining because water is running in
rivulets down the inner wall of the cell house, being absorbed into
state-issue blankets that have been laid out for this purpose. The
blankets must be changed frequently by the tier porters. Water
drips from cracks in the ceiling, the drops fall into large plastic
garbage barrels placed strategically on the cell house floor four
stories below.

It isn’t raining hard, if it was, more water would be coming
through the cracks. It’s funny to see streams of water pouring
from the ceiling (funny in the same way it is to see errant weeds
growing from the sides of old brick buildings here and on the wall).

I wonder how much longer this place is going to last. What if it
fell down? Wouldn’t that be funny? What would they do? Tell us
to go home? When you have lived your entire life in prison, where
is home?

five: fight
Saturday, August 2nd

There was a fight tonight during the last movement period.
(Movement periods are times during the day when we’re allowed
to move from one area of the prison to another.) Fights are
hardly unusual here, they happen all the time. I wouldn’t bother
mentioning it if there wasn’t more to it.

The fight broke out in the main corridor leading to our
cellhouse between two prisoners of different races and quickly
swelled to include more prisoners of those same races—six of one
and eight of the other. This kind of fight is more serious than
usual because it affects everyone in the prison, tautens the
already threaded line of tension that runs through everything
here, and carries with it the very real possibility that the entire
place will erupt into violence.

Alarms sounded, and the gates inside the prison that control
movement on its sidewalks and through its corridors slammed
shut, cutting off other prisoners’ ability to get to the disturbance.
Guards converged from every section of the prison.

I saw the fight from behind a wall of bars that separates one
end of the corridor from the other, part of a large crowd that was
caught there when the gates slammed. All of us watched as the
drama played out. One of the race groups involved in the fight
was my own and I was immediately conscious that there were
members of the other race in the crowd around me. I tallied the
numbers in my mind—theirs, ours— and shifted in the crowd,
moving closer to the others of my own race. I watched myself
doing this and realized what I was doing was automatic—having
done it so many times in the past, I didn’t have to think about it.
And I wasn’t alone, everyone in that crowd did what I did. The
races separated. I wonder at what point in a prison sentence that
a person becomes like this. Reaching into my memory as far as I
can…I can’t remember. I’ll have to ask someone newer.

We are in our cells now, locked in for the night. The cell block is
quiet, that’s  how you can tell something is going on. All it would
take is for someone to say something, to direct it out through the
bars of their cell into the quiet bock. Maybe not even that. It may
be already going to happen anyway. We’ll see what tomorrow
brings, when the cell doors are racked in the morning.

six: search
Monday, August 4th

I found my cell destroyed when I returned from the Big Yard this
morning. It was impossible to take it in all at once, so I stood at the
bars for some time looking in, trying to make sense of the mess,
assess the damage.

Everything was on the floor. The sheets and blankets that cover the
thin foam pads we call mattresses, stripped off and thrown there—
Bucky’s and mine. The cardboard boxes that I keep my property in had
been turned upside down and dumped there too. My heart froze at the
sight of my writing tablets in a twisted pile, loose pages scattered.

Anger came over me and I entered the cell. The door racked shut
behind me. Bucky’s property was dumped in the corner and his meager
collection of possessions were pushed under the toilet. The cover of my
favorite writing book was torn and I realized that it is as good as gone,
its useful life ended—not because the damage had destroyed it, but
because it is the reason guards will use to take it in the next cell search.
According to prison policy, it is now “altered.” No matter that they did it.

When I picked up the writing tablets, I noticed that my photos were
under everything, strewn across the concrete floor face down. I
dropped the tablets and hurried to pick them up. Some lay in water and
there was no way I could salvage them.

It would have been easy at that point to tell myself it was the last
straw, to self-destruct. It was what I wanted more than anything to do.

The photos were of Kriss—of Kriss and me together. Kriss, who has
visited me for the last fifteen years, who sacrificed so much in her life in
order to befriend me, then more in order to marry me. She has been
with me through the hardest times and is the only family I have ever
known. Do they not know that I love this woman more than life itself?
My anger turned red-hot; my hatred of them, implacable.

I reminded myself that the photos aren’t her, they’re just photos.
She doesn’t want me to self-destruct and end up in the hole. I tried to
imagine her here, what she would say. A shadow passed in front of the
cell and I looked up to see a guard standing there. He looked young and
a bit nervous. I stared at him with the blank cast of my prison face, not
saying anything. I didn’t know why he had come to my cell (to witness
firsthand the misery he had caused and revel in it?) I remember exactly
what I thought at that moment, “It’s too soon…I haven’t composed
myself yet…I’m not ready to hear what you have to say…get out of here
and leave me alone!”

The guard smiled in an attempt to appear friendly, to bridge the
gulf. He offered an offhand apology for the mess and informed me that
it wasn’t their fault (he and the others guards who did it), the order to
search the cell had been handed down “from above.” He looked at me
as though he expected me to say something.

I held on to my deadpan expression—as much a part of me as it is, I
had difficulty maintaining it. I told him quietly to leave.

The guard began to say something, but I didn’t give him the chance.
I yelled, ”LEAVE!” imbuing the word with all of the anger that I felt, no
longer interested in concealing it. It was as civil a tone as I could
manage, His expression turned angry instantly, his lips compressed into
a tight resentful line and he moved off.

For a moment, I tried to look at things from the young guard’s
point of view, but it was useless. There is no way I could understand a
guard like that, how he and his buddies could possibly think that it was
okay to do this, and that he would be able to come by the cell afterward
and explain away what they had done, that I would be okay with it and
everything would be all right—or, at least, no different than before they
did it.

I sat down heavily atop the wreckage of my property, no longer
interested in trying to sort through them or pick things up, the photos
of Kriss still in my hands. I counseled myself—as I have done countless
times in the past—that I don’t really own anything…photos or anything
else. No one does here. What you have in regard to property, you only
have through good fortune, and only for the time being, there is no
guarantee you will be able to retain it. If you lash yourself to it—what
you think is yours—prison will break you. Anything you have in here can
be taken or destroyed on the whim of those who keep you, and the
more you cling to it, the more likely it is to happen.

Breathing deep, I allowed my thoughts to settle and reminded
myself of the source of my strength, My strength lies in the knowledge
that guards can take everything from me, strip me naked and throw me
into a concrete and steel cell with nothing, leave me there an indefinite
period of time (months or years) and I will find a way to survive, to
come out of it sane and still a functional human being with the ability to
start anew. I know this because they have done it, and I have made it
through…many times. It is these times that are my greatest victories.

The only thing we truly own in prison is what we possess when we
are naked…locked inside of a cell with nothing. If a person can figure out
what that is and cultivate it, abide in it, what they take from him
materially means nothing, that is when he is doing time right. If you’re
unaware of what you have to fall back on when you’ve been stripped of
everything…then you truly are poor.

I feel better now. I realize I only get upset because I forget, lose
touch with what I already know, the source of my strength. When I’m in
touch, none of this is able to bother me…and I don’t feel the need to hate anymore.

seven: fat jack
Tuesday, August 5th

They transferred Fat Jack to the infirmary today. I was glad I got the
chance to see him before he left, but it was difficult watching him go. I
have known him a long time and he really is a decent person.

It’s funny that I still call him Fat Jack even though he isn’t fat
anymore and hasn’t been for some time. His belly protrudes, but that is
only because his organs are distended, painfully bloated with the toxins
his liver is unable to filter from his blood. The rest of him is skeleton-
like, the flesh that remains hangs loosely from his bones. He is in the
latter stages of Hepatitis C infection.

Jack’s transfer isn’t a surprise, he knew it was coming. It’s inevitable
when you lose touch with who and where you are—when you ask
guards questions that don’t make sense and wander unconsciously into
sections of the prison you aren’t supposed to go. We have both seen it
before (infirmary staff say that the prison HVC infection rate is over
seventy percent), most recently with some of Jack’s closest friends:
Chuck, Leo, Speedy…Bill.

Jack took Bill’s death the hardest. Bill, who spoke of being betrayed
before his transfer to the infirmary. He passed most of his sentence
working as a clerk in the chapel, certain that Jesus would get him out of
prison one day. “Faith” he called it. As it turned out, it was nothing
more than overconfidence in Jesus’ ability to influence the affairs of the
Department of Corrections. Bill died within days of his move out of the
cell house and Jack has made a point of declaring his own position on
Jesus ever since. Even when he is in one of his delusional states, his
position doesn’t change—there is no Jesus.

For me, what the state is doing to Fat Jack throws into question
their assertion that their prisons only house those who are too
dangerous to allow into society. After all, Jack can hardly get around
anymore—he was sent to prison for drug offenses. What would it hurt
to cut his sentence and let him die outside these walls? Wouldn’t that
be the right thing to do? Every terminally ill prisoner I have known
asked for this, but I’ve never seen it granted.

It was hard to watch Jack make that walk today. I tried to lighten his
mood by telling him that Bucky (my celly) is in the infirmary…that he will
see him there…but my words sounded phony because they didn’t match
what was in my heart. I wish that I could have thought of something
more meaningful to say. Jack seemed unusually clearheaded. Watching
him trudge off down the walk in the direction of Medical, I believe he
knew this would be the last time he was going to make that trip.

eight: about education
Thursday, August 7th

Everything stopped while I was reading a newspaper in
the library today—the article said that Alexander
Solzhenitsyn passed away in his home in Moscow. The rest
of the world continued on, I suppose, but everything
stopped inside of me. I retreated to my cell and remain here
in order to contemplate his life, and the connection I have
for so long felt with him. I realize you may not understand—
why Mr. Solzhenitsyn meant anything to me, why the news
of his death affects me. Let me try to explain.

When I was sent to prison many years ago as a very
young man, I had only a seventh grade education and didn’t
read or write very well. I had never heard of Mr.
Solzhenitsyn. I wanted to go to school and get an
education, which was something that was not available to
me before I came to prison, but I soon discovered I wasn’t
allowed to attend school inside either. Prison officials said it
would be a waste of their time and resources to educate me
because I had a life sentence. They told me I would only be
allowed to take barber or janitor classes—two vocations that
would make me a useful prisoner.

At this point, I didn’t even know if it was possible for me
to learn—if I had the same abilities as others—but I had
made up my mind to try, so I set out to educate myself. I
went to the prison library and began to check out books. It
was a small library and poorly stocked, but I read everything
I could…biography, history, philosophy, language. Then I
made tests and gave them to myself in order to be sure I
had retained all that I was pouring into my mind.

On the back shelf of the library one day I came across a
treasure—a three volume set of Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag
Archipelago
. When I got it back to my cell, it held me
entranced long after I finished it.

I went on to read all of Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s published
works. My favorite is a small book entitled One Day in the
Life of Ivan
Denisovich—the story of a day in the life of a
prisoner in the Soviet Union. I love that book, not only
because it reflects the strength and perseverance of the
human spirit in the face of seeming hopelessness but,
because it could have only been written by a prisoner…only a
prisoner can know of so many of the things he wrote. In
fact the book startled me when I read it because I knew it
was written about prisoners in another country, during a
different time, under different circumstances, yet I felt as if I
was reading about prisoners and guards I know, what goes
on here, and what goes through many of our minds while
we’re experiencing it. There were so many parallels, I couldn’t
help but feel close to them. Of course, I am conscious that
Ivan and many of those in prison around him were political
prisoners, and I and those around me are criminals, but
there is still a connection…and that connection is that we are
human beings.

The experience of prison as it exists in our country today
is no less damaging to the individual or society than the
experience of it that Mr. Solzhenitsyn wrote about. There
are many differences, but it is no less harmful and those
who would believe otherwise are deluding themselves;
certainly they have never been prisoners. The only argument
to be made is whether or not (because of the harm many of
us have caused others) we deserve it, and if the price of
doing this to so many of us is worth the toll it takes upon
society. I’ve often wondered what Mr. Solzhenitsyn would
think (write) if he were able to experience what it is like to
be a long-term prisoner in this country today where prison
has become an industry into which human beings are fed,
and out of which is spat a product that is much less capable
of functioning in society than the one that went in.

Being in prison in this country is different now than it ever
has been before. There are more people inside—many times
more. Never has there been anywhere close to this number.

And sentences are longer and harsher than ever. Is that
because people are worse today than they were in the past?
Worth less? Less able to redeem themselves, or less
deserving of the opportunity to do so?

And young people—the ones with the greatest potential
to reform themselves—are given those sentences. We have
prisoners in this state who were given mandatory Life
without the Possibility of Parole sentences when they were
thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen years old. We have prisoners
struck-out as career criminals when they were nineteen,
twenty, and twenty-one. They too have mandatory Life
without Parole sentences. “Mandatory” means that a judge
didn’t have a choice in the matter, the sentence was
mandated by legislators (lawmakers who decided without
ever meeting these young people or considering their
circumstances, that there is nothing in them worth
salvaging, that they can never change, and that they
deserve nothing ever other than unremitting punishment.

Maybe I am deluding myself, but I have always felt that
Mr. Solzhenitsyn would be able to relate to what is going on
here with many prisoners…feel as close to us as I have
always felt to him. Getting a sentence of Life without Parole
when you are young is hopelessness. Continuing on after
that, learning to survive in an American prison and proceed
forward as decades stack one atop another, and you have
long since forgotten what is on the other side of these
walls, is perseverance of human spirit.

Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s writing inspired me as a young prisoner
to continue my efforts to educate myself and, eventually, led
me to write a book modeled after his One Day in the Life of
Ivan Denisovich
. It’s a manuscript that is passed from
convict to convict; the story of one day in the life of a
prisoner inside the prison in which I grew into adulthood and
have spent most of my life—the prison in Walla Walla. When
officials there discovered a copy and read it, they threw me
in the hole and revoked my medium-custody classification.
But the manuscript still makes its rounds. Prisoners read it
because it puts words to what they are unable to, relates
the truth about prison, and what it does to those who are
in it. I have always felt that Mr. Solzhenitsyn is as
responsible for the existence of this convict manuscript as I
am.

I wonder if Mr. Solzhenitsyn ever dreamed while he was in
prison that his life would turn out as it has…that he would
live outlive the system that imprisoned him… that he would
one day live free…that he would own a home (in Moscow)
and that he would be able to die there. Perseverance of
spirit. Thank you Mr. Solzhenitsyn for showing us what that
is. No better example could have been given, no better life
lived.

nine: crowded
Friday, August 8th

Bucky was released from the infirmary today around noon. He
surprised me when he showed up at the cell haggard and pale,
hunched over because his stomach still hurt. He said that he had
seen Fat Jack.

Part of me is glad that he is back. Tomorrow, if he is up to it, we
will play chess. He likes getting beat.

I am trying to suppress the other part of me—the part that
doesn’t like to be crowded.

ten: a river of faces
Tuesday, August 12th

My friend, Kenny, got out of prison yesterday. He felt bad
about leaving, I could tell. Not bad that he was getting out, but
that I’m not.

It’s a kind of guilt that I don’t understand. He wanted me to
say something, I know, to allay what he was feeling. But I didn’t.
It’s not my fault what he feels.

Kenny is a decent person, but he cannot fathom the endless
line of people I have seen get out in the last twenty-five years, a
river of faces almost as large the one I have watched flow in. And
he is only one ripple in that river. I didn’t want to try and explain
that to him. Better that he just went…thinking what he thought,
feeling what he felt.

Never do I mouth the same tired platitudes I hear from
others—“Good luck…” “I hope you make it…” “It’s been good to
know you…” etc. I can’t bring myself to do it. Only in the last few
years have I become aware of what I say—“See you later…” Maybe
that is what I am hoping for. And…why not. The odds are it’s
true. Am I supposed to feel bad when they come back? You think
I want to be alone in here? Or surrounded only by those I don’t
like?

I realize it’s a fucked up way to think. I’m working on it.

Eleven: The Sting
Thursday, August 14th<

An unusual sight on the Big Yard today—two gold finches. I
heard them and looked up in time to see them flit over. That was
it, only a second or two worth of sighting, but enough to be sure
of what they were.

The young starlings were more independent than last time I
observed them—they have ceased to bother their parents so
much. All that differentiates them from adults now is their
coloring.

I’m not sure what made me think of it, but as I watched the
birds it occurred to me that prison is harder on people who were
sent here when they are older. At least, those who are older than
twenty-one. When you’re sent to prison younger than that, there
comes a point when it loses its sting, you lose touch with the fact
that you are being punished. This is true especially if you have a
life sentence because when you live your entire adult life in prison,
no matter how bad it gets in here, your situation is only what
you, as an adult, have ever known it to be. You go about life the
best you can without the handicap of memories of a better time
or place (unless it’s memories of a better prison you were in
once, compared to the one you are in now).

After living so long here I’m conscious that prison is
punishment only because of what I see on the faces of those not
yet accustomed to it. Watching the newly arrived, it’s obvious
that what they find in here isn’t what they are used to, not what
is considered normal outside these walls…undoubtedly a long way
from it. Their reaction infuses itself on their faces, a dawning look
of horror; realization that they now have to live like this, will have
to find a way to do it…or knot a sheet around their neck. They
don’t know the half of it yet.

Even as I write this I’m aware that it isn’t completely true, I’m
not entirely unbothered by prison, the experience of life here isn’t
bereft of punishment for me. That is because I’m not blameless. I
am responsible for the death of an innocent person, that is why I
am here. And it eats at me…always has. What bothers me is that
I don’t feel like I’ve ever been able to pay anything back, in any
way make up for the crime I as an ignorant young person
committed—no matter what happens in here, no matter how bad
or intolerable it gets, prison has never made me feel like I am
doing that.

 

 

Arthur Longworth has been incarcerated since age 18. His youth was spent in a variety of foster homes – usually for only two or three months at a time. He was separated from his sister at an early age and, in his teens, he lived in a series of youth facilities. At sixteen he was released to the streets with no means of support. He had only a seventh-grade education and began life in Seattle breaking into cars and doing petty criminal activity. At age 18 he escalated to armed robbery and in one holdup a victim was killed. Arthur was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.  After Longworth arrived in prison he asked to go to school to get an education. He was told that as a “lifer” he wouldn’t need an education. Eventually he visited the library and educated himself.

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