This brief collection of essays gives the reader the faintest of glimpses of prison life in America. The author was convicted of murder at the age of 18 and sentenced to life in prison, and his experiences in Walla Walla Prison are quite interesting to read about, especially given the fact that prison writings (including his own) are routinely repressed by the authorities. In fact, Longworth spent three months in solitary confinement as a result of circulating an early work, and I can’t help but wonder about the consequences of this publication.
These essays read like snatched moments, with incomplete and partial thoughts which just begin to scratch the surface of the complexity of the prison system, and what life is like for the people inside it. Longworth alludes, for example, to the way in which the system perpetuates itself, talking about his own experiences as a juvenile and mentioning the fact that he feels totally unprepared to navigate the outside world. He also discusses the daily grind and oppression of prison life, the things which become normal which those of us on the outside would never tolerate, like never really having anything to yourself, or living in a prison where water streams down the walls when it rains.
He’s also a remarkable figure in that when he entered the prison system, he had a seventh grade education. Upon asking for access to education, he was informed that because he was a lifer, educating him would have no real purpose, so he is essentially self-taught, fighting for access to educational materials. His essays are clear and elegant, with a crisp language that I really like, and they illustrate the potential present in so many people, and the shame that we should feel for denying that potential (something which he actually addresses as well).
Longworth’s references to sightings of various birds (osprey, starlings, goldfinches) are depressing in a way I can’t really articulate. It sounds trite, but I really cannot imagine what it would be like to be trapped in a place where the outside world was taken away from me, and where I ached for the sight of a single bird or some moss or something living and natural. These essays reminded me of an essay I heard on NPR earlier this year about a stray cat who became the darling of a bunch of prisoners before the prison trapped the cat and took it away (presumably to be murdered at the hands of Animal Control), and they made me question the humanity of our prison system.
Is incarceration necessary? Are mandatory sentencing laws a good idea? Are there more humane ways that we could be incarcerating people, if we think that’s what needs to be done? These are all issues which I ponder, and writing from prisoners is one of the best ways to explore those issues for those of us who have not experienced the prison system at first hand.
The Prison Diary of Arthur Longworth #199180, by Arthur Longworth. Edited by Leonard Cirino. Published 2008, 24 pages. Biography. (Available from Pygmy Forest Press, for those who would like a copy.)
(Note: Leonard is my godfather, but I promise that didn’t entitle him to a special pass on this book review. The Prison Diary really is good, and you really should read it.)