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Image: Amy Elkins, from the series Black Is The Day, Black Is The Night

Before my celebration, last week, of Arthur Longworth‘s CLO Conference presentation, I had no idea his work was to be featured once more on The Marshall Project. As part of TMP’s ongoing Life Inside series, Longworth wrote about being moved between cells. This excerpt stood out:

Now I’m loading up my pictures. Here’s one of the former warden and his wife, who have visited me over the years, welcomed me into their family, and spoken out for my release.

There is so little solidity in prison, so little to depend on, that a picture like this — or a cell that’s mine, that’s home, that I can always return to — is a treasure.

Longworth’s appreciation for a former-warden’s support is thrilling, clever and effective. Longworth gently turns over our preconceived notions of friend and foe. A man of uniform has welcomed a prisoner into his family? If our stereotypes of law enforcement dissolve then what of our stereotypes of prisoners? Well, just read Arthur Longworth’s words. And those of thousands of other prison writers, for that matter.

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.

European Space Agency simulation module used to study the effects of long term confinement. Photo: Pavel Zelensky/AFP/Getty Images

In June 2010, as part of the Mars 500 research project, the European Space Agency (ESA) put six trainee astronauts into a space flight simulation. In a giant ” tin can” in a Moscow hangar with no sun, no fresh water and no alcohol for 520 days, the psychological tenacity of these six ground-bound astronauts will be under constant scrutiny. Mars 500 is the most ambitious space-simulator research to date. The ESA put away its trainees in similar conditions for 105 days in 2009.

As a spokesman for Mars 500, Dr. Christer Fuglesang, a Swedish astronaut with the human spaceflight directorate of the European Space Agency (ESA) emphasised the usefulness of the study:

“This isn’t a joke. It will give a lot of useful information, not just about Mars but also for Earth […] People are isolated in many places in the world. We have scientists in the south pole for a long time, or in submarines. Then there are all those in jail.”

Fuglesang is right. Solitary confinement is never a joke.

Well-wishers, family and friends watch a video of the miners projected onto a screen erected near the collapsed gold and copper mine near Copiapó, Chile. Photo: Ivan Alvarado / Reuters.

When the Chilean miners were trapped for 69 days experts from NASA were called in as experts on the psychological strains of long term confinement. A call to the management of any one of America’s hundreds Intense Management Units (IMUs) could have been as useful (except for the fact that prisoners are hardly cared for or monitored in the way necessary to improve their psychological state.) On any given day in the United States, 20,000 men, women and children are held in solitary confinement.

I have used this quote before, but it bears repeating:

First, after months or years of complete isolation, many prisoners “begin to lose the ability to initiate behavior of any kind—to organize their own lives around activity and purpose. Chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair often result. . . . In extreme cases, prisoners may literally stop behaving” (Haney). [They] become essentially catatonic.

Source: Hellhole, The New Yorker, March 30, 2009, by Atul Gawande.


Everyday in American prisons wallow the equivalent of 600 Chilean mining disasters … except prisoners can remain penned in for longer than 69 days.

“The [psychological and cognitive effects of long term isolation] is not something that’s easy to study,” says Craig Haney, psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, “and not something that prison systems are eager to have people look at.” Haney leads academic research on solitary confinement and notes that US prisons didn’t always resort to its current widespread use:

We have an overwhelmingly crowded prison system in which the mandate to rehabilitate and provide activities for prisoners was suspended at the same time as the prison system became overcrowded. Not surprisingly, prison systems faced with this influx of prisoners, and lacking the rewards they once had to manage and control prisoner behavior, turned to the use of punishment. And one big punishment is the threat of long-term solitary confinement. They’ve used it without a lot of forethought to its consequences. That policy needs to be rethought. (Source)


Academics, studies and statistics may hook, inspire and lead some to direct action, but for others the voices of those who’ve suffered in solitary confinement may inform more effectively.

In a prison system that has lost its moral compass, in a system that uses solitary confinement cells as the new asylums, in a country which had made torture its own, it is the voices of the confined to which we should pay most attention.

I would like to recommend an excellent writer, who also happens to be a prisoner. Arthur Longworth was awarded First Place in memoir in the PEN American Center 2010 Prison Writing Contest. Longworth writes about the violence of the Walla Walla Intense Management Unit (IMU) in Washington State. Longworth’s second memoir piece is entitled The Hole.

You can buy The Prison Diary of Arthur Longworth #299180 ($7) by following the directions posted at Changing Lives, Changing Minds.


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