I spent last Friday inside the walls of San Quentin State Prison watching the presentations of TEDxSan Quentin. Most talks were by prisoners and almost all were moving, reasoned, hard-hitting. It reminded me, once more, of the incredible intellect of men, women and children inside America’s prisons. It made me think again of how foolish we are as a society to waste talent, ignore positive contributions and crush lives through our addiction to incarceration.
Arthur Longworth was not at that TEDx; he is imprisoned not at San Quentin, but at Monroe Correctional Complex near Seattle. Nor did Longworth make the presentation (above) at a TED event. While Monroe has had its own TEDx event, the prisoners own Concerned Lifers Organization (CLO) has been hosting an annual conference for longer.
Longworth’s talk Mass Drownings at the 2015 CLO Conference is an eloquent, 18-minute-long metaphor of the prison industrial complex as the ocean. Longworth was sentenced to Life Without Parole (LWOP) meaning he has for the past 30-some-years lived behind bars knowing he’d never get out from them. This is a special-type of torture reserved for he and tens of thousands of other Americans. Longworth has witnessed more and more people tossed into the ocean and describes the cruelty of hope.
“This news that people outside of the ocean are actually talking about what’s happening in it spreads across the water in the form of hope. A piece of which you reach out and grab on to. Your instinct isn’t to hold on because by this time you’ve been in the water so long and you don’t know what hope is. But when you try to let go you discover that you can’t bring yourself to do it because this thing you’ve grabbed on to is warm and buoyant. For the first time since you were put into the ocean you cease to shiver and you feel like there might be something to swim toward.”
It’s here that our relationship with those on the inside comes into sharp focus. Politicized prisoners know that there’s a major shift in public attitudes. They are working, too, to help in the balanced and restorative debate we have ackowledged we need. Recognising there’s a problem is the easy part; we need to find the solutions. We need to meet these mens’ hopes. We need to replace a bloated and cruel, cruel system with humanity.
I watched this video for the first time in the wee hours of Thursday, 14th January. I was due that afternoon to open Prison Obscura at Evergreen State College. I have presented so many times on Prison Obscura and the ideas around it that it’s hard not to feel jaded at times. Sometimes, I go into auto-pilot. But, just because I have communicated things multiple times doesn’t make the human rights abuses to which they respond any less urgent.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Longworth several times during my role as a teacher with the University Beyond Bars at Monroe (2009-2011). We never spent any time in the classroom together. He had no use for the art classes I taught and it was not feasible for me to take his Spanish lessons! Arthur Longworth is a brilliant mind and an inspired leader. From within a system that has abandoned its moral compass he has maintained his own. Somehow.
Longworth bristles with controlled fury and a nailed-on sense of injustice. He can’t fathom why a society might throw people away so readily. Then he recalls the monarchy system from which the United States emerged. Kings used to condemn men by decree without ever seeing their faces. Only high and mighty arrogance could enact such disregard.
Mass Drownings reduced me to tears. I also felt shame; shame that I’d got lazy, on occasion, with the presentation of Prison Obscura. The show remains on the walls of Evergreen State College through March 2nd, but I am inclined to tell Washingtonians to watch Arthur Longworth before they seek out any online video about Prison Obscura. Longworth’s argument, grace and dignity are why the fight against mass incarceration must continue. His words carry more meaning and weight than any I, or any other outside activist for that matter, could ever.
Of course, to people familiar with prison literature, this is no surprise. Longworth won the PEN Center ‘Best Prison Memoir’ Prize in 2010. Pulitzer-winning novelist Junot Diaz read Longworth’s Walla Walla IMU, a story about ants in solitary confinement, on stage to a New York crowd. College students nationwide are assigned his works. Last year, The Marshall Project published an essay of his. Longworth has been the feature of Seattle Times and KUOW pieces about LWOP.
Listen to Longworth. Simply put, he’s one of the few remaining persons who talks any sense about a maddening system that condemns hundreds of thousands of men, women and children without ever seeing their faces.