April 17, 2012

Writing for clemency


The Seattle Times ran a front page profile on Monday about a prolific writer whose stories are studied in college programs across the country. Junot Diaz has praised these stories in front of packed houses in New York and, despite dropping out of school after the seventh grade, the writer was recognized for his literary achievements by the PEN Center in 2010.

All this is even more striking when you consider the writer has lived the last 26 years in a Washington state prison.

Arthur Longworth’s childhood was spent in and out of foster homes and juvenile detention centers. In 1986, he was convicted of the first-degree aggravated murder of Cynthia Nelson, a 25-year-old part-time Amway saleswoman.

The Times article describes Longworth’s first years in prison as plagued by violence and periods of isolation.

In his first decade as a lifer, Longworth racked up an astonishing disciplinary record: 92 serious infractions and 13 stints in solitary confinement, for behavior that included fighting, having an “explosive device” in his cell and throwing urine on a guard. His prison file, obtained under a public disclosure request, is 4,791 pages thick.

Eventually, Longworth found purpose in intellectual pursuits. He learned Mandarin and Spanish, became a Buddhist, and, of course, started writing. His work is primarily based on his personal experiences; the award from PEN was for Best Prison Memoir.

His stories, most nonfiction, are spare and unsentimental descriptions of prison life. A “duck” is a new inmate, a “rapo” is a target, the “freeworld” is a dream best kept at bay. Guards are cruel, but also kind. The arrival of ospreys or starlings in the prison yard prompts reflection on generational crime.

He often infuses his writing with a slow boil of outrage, particularly about life-without-parole sentences for young inmates. His fans, often on the political left, see Longworth as a truth-teller about the jailing of America.

Longworth recently applied for clemency, but does not expect to get it. Rather, he thinks he will die in jail. His case is worth discussing, however, because, despite the horrific nature of his crime, he has made dedicated strides toward rehabilitation. And he does not mince words when it comes to his past: “I am responsible for the death of an innocent person, that is why I am here. And it eats at me.”

By measuredly writing about prison life, Longworth establishes himself as something of an expert on the usefulness and potential for rehabilitation in America’s prison system. The shame is that nothing can bring back Cynthia Nelson, but by seeking forgiveness and striving to improve what he offers to the world, Longworth strengthens his case for a reduced sentence.

“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.”

What do you think, can a prisoner write his way to clemency?

Kevin Murphy is the digital media marketing manager of Melville House.