In this prison, the Yard is an acre and a half of grass, gravel, dirt, and concrete that we pack into hundreds at a time. Like everything else in here, it smells and sounds like people. Lots of them. The cloistered smell of others pressed in around you, so close they touch you on all sides, as you move along in the steady push of amassed bodies through the security gate and into the Yard. The sound is a confluence of conversations, calls from one prisoner to another across the yard and the discordant cadence of gunfire from the nearby range rebounding off the crumbling thirty-foot brick wall topped with a gun walk that bounds one side of this space. You are hedged on every other side by the interior face of a building complex for which no blueprint can possibly exist because this prison was built in 1908, and every year since it has in some way been altered or added onto. On this Yard, you see mass incarceration.
Outside prison, mass incarceration seems to be measured in numbers, which is understandable because the numbers are staggering – the number of prisons, prisoners, and the racial disproportion of those imprisoned in our country. But, inside, mass incarceration wears a more personal face; one you wouldn’t feel right equating with a mere number. It includes entire families and communities. It’s an institution into which young people are often discarded with sentences they can’t live to see the end of and are never looked at again. And the three prisoners beyond their eightieth birthday on this Yard bear witness that mass incarceration affords no mercy or compassion to the elderly either.
Although, after more than thirty years inside prison – indeed, every day I’ve ever lived as an adult – I’ve found the most significant defining characteristic of mass incarceration isn’t external. It isn’t anything you see on the Yard: it’s what you feel. In prison, mass incarceration is an experience sewn into your flesh and bones, a physical force that makes you feel as though you’re buried, as though you can’t breathe. It’s an experience you can’t turn away from or choose not to have, and it leaves you with little – or no – capacity for hope. A feeling that is most intense when you close your eyes and the faces out of which your experience is comprised rise unbidden into your consciousness.
Boo has a wide, moon-shaped face. He’s the little Native American kid who refused to let go of my leg at my sister’s foster home when it was time for me to return to the J Street Boys’ Home. He’s called me “Uncle” ever since. If I open my eyes, I’ll see his face as clearly as I do now with my eyes closed. Because he was released from the solitary confinement unit a couple of weeks ago, after spending a year and a half in there, and now he’s on the Yard with me. A lifetime ago, Boo shot someone during a drug deal. That’s why he has life without the possibility of parole.
Dean’s face buoys my spirit. I met him in a receiving home on 11th and Pearl in Tacoma when he was nine and I was twelve – both of us, at that point, already veterans of an interminable number of state placements. Dean’s company uplifted me in that miserable circumstance, and again a decade later in the control unit of the state penitentiary when guards fire hosed me every week, and kept me naked and in leg shackles for a month. He gave me a thumbs up through the narrow window slat of his cell door whenever guards dragged me past. Dean is on the Yard of a prison sixty miles south of here. Two decades ago, he struck-out under the state’s “3 Strikes” law for burglary. That’s why he has life without the possibility of parole.
Robert’s face is black – so black it’s hard to make out his features in the dark. I shared a room with him at the boys’ home in Silverdale the night he snuck out the window. He said he’d be back by morning, but he wasn’t. Robert was bigger than the rest of us, and unaware of his own strength. I wasn’t surprised to hear that he beat up and robbed a man outside a tavern the night he slipped out the window. Or that the man died in the hospital a week later. Robert is on the Yard of a prison four hundred miles to the east of here. He got life.
Dan’s face is haggard; he looks old, even though he’s only a few years older than me. I first saw him when I was at the C.K. Boys’ Home outside Centralia. I never expected he’d come to prison, because he was the son of a staff member and, back then, it seemed like prison was only for those of us who were raised by the state. Maybe whatever was wrong with us rubbed off on him. Dan has been in prison for twenty-six years, although, he hasn’t been to the Yard since his friend, Dennis, died in the cell next to him. Maybe he’s given up. He has life without the possibility of parole.
James’ face hasn’t resided behind my closed eyes as long as the others, but the image is no less scoured into my consciousness. Because I know his life circumstance, and it troubles me deeply. James was in the O.K. Boys’ Ranch the same as I was, and he committed almost the same crime I did. But he did it twenty years later, because he’s twenty years younger. Why did this make me angry? James is on the Yard of a prison eighty miles northwest of here. He has life without the possibility of parole.
And, Tony. Who got let go from his job at the license plate factory for losing part of his hand in a metal cutting machine. Who often talked about the state boys’ ranch in eastern Washington where he grew up. Who ran laps in this Yard, taught other prisoners math, and did the best he could to make it in here for twenty-five years. Whose face, at least in my mind, no longer bears the weight of unending incarceration. And whose voice I swear I still hear in the corridor when it’s crowded, even though I know it can’t be him; because he hung himself in his cell. He had life without the possibility of parole.
But it isn’t only those faces that comprise this experience. There’s another face that I think of every day – the face of a person that I keep close because I refuse to forget that I wasn’t delivered into this institution innocent or blameless. As a young person without an education, a family, or hope for a future, I stabbed and killed someone. I’m bound irrevocably to that terrible act, and obligated to the human being I committed it against, in a way that doesn’t feel like it has anything to do with the impersonal cast of mandatory life without the possibility of parole sentence or prison. No matter how bad it gets in here, prison doesn’t feel like it makes up for anything. However, prison, even in the form it has devolved into in our country, has taught me something.
In prison, I’ve learned that no amount of pain or misery the criminal justice system assigns can undo the crime I committed, or make me any sorrier than I’ve been since the moment I committed it. And I’ve learned that remorse is the seed of change – personal reform – which is the only direction in which anyone who is remorseful can possibly move. I’ve learned that, although I can’t undo the crime I committed, I can strive to do good – which means caring about others – no matter what the circumstance. And I’ve learned that mass incarceration isn’t really how many people are inside prison. Mass incarceration is what I see reflected in the faces of those I know who’ve never lived outside it.
Arthur Longworth is an award winning writer including 3 national PEN awards. At 50 years old after three decades and counting inside, he has a penetrating and unflinching perspective on the prison industrial complex. He came into the prison system with a grade 7 education and now teaches college level spanish classes through University Beyond Bars and actively uses his words to impact those of us on the outside.