Arthur Longworth has won three National PEN Awards and is the author of two books:
Arthur's work has been read on stage at events in New York City by celebrated literary figures Francine Prose and Junot Diaz, and American hip-hop artist and poet Talib Kweli.
His writing has been adopted into the curriculum of courses at the University of Texas at Austin, Santa Clara University, and the University of Washington.
Some notable figures who have pointed out the importance of Arthur's work are Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jonathan Martin, who remarks, "I've been engrossed by[Arthur's] excellent writing about prison life, as have editors at The Seattle Times." [Arthur's] personal journey through an uncompromising circumstance is fascinating and education for 'free world' readers." And Kevin Murphy at Melville House Books writes, "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."
But Arthur hasn't always written. Before he became a ward of the state at 12 years old, he lived in a railway yard in Portland, OR where he panhandled for change, and stole purses and bags from people passing through the city's two bus stations. Encamped beneath a railroad trestle on the bank of the Boise River, he survived by shoplifting and breaking into vending machines. And he kept himself from starving on the streets of Seattle by snatching a canvas bank bag from the beneath the arm of someone not nearly as fast, or hungry, as he was.
When Arthur was put into the foster care system in WA State, a psychologist noted his state well. However, due to a provision attached to a federal grant that barred placement of siblings in the same home, the state inducted Arthur into the homeless limbo of continuous receiving home placement instead.
At 13 years old, while on the run from a receiving home, Arthur was arrested for an attempted robbery and assault on the streets of downtown Tacoma. Over the next three years, the state cycled him through its network of notorious boys' homes, including one that The Seattle Times dubbed "the house of horrors."
At 16 years old, the state turned Arthur out onto the streets without a family, home, money, education or job training. At 17 years old, Arthur was arrested for burglary and stealing a car that he crashed at over 100 mph during a pursuit with the CA Highway Patrol. At 18, he was arrested for armed robbery, and, just after he turned 20 years old, an attempted robbery and murder for which he received a mandatory Life Without Parole sentence.
Arthur was sent to WA State Penitentiary at Walla Walla where, at the time, he was the youngest prisoner sentenced to life without parole. In prison, Arthur set to work trying to educate himself, an accomplishment he managed to achieve against the odds. It's an experience he describes in The Prison Diary of Arthur Longworth:
"When I was sent to prison... I had only a seventh grade education and didn't read or write very well. I wanted to go to school and get an education, which was something that was not available to me before I came to prison, but I soon discovered I wasn't allowed to attend school inside either. Prison officials said it would be a waste of their time and resources to educate me because I had a life sentence. At this point, I didn't know if it was possible for me to learn - if I had the same abilities as others - but I had made up my mind to try so I set out to educate myself. I went to the prison library and began to check out books. It was a small library and poorly stocked, but I read everything I could... biography, history, philosophy, language" (p. 18).
Arthur studied Mandarin Chinese and taught himself to be a skilled Spanish language interpreter. He worked as an interpreter, as well as a teaching assistant for English as a Second Language classes in prison. He also instructed university-level Spanish language courses.
Arthur also began to write in prison, an exercise he attributes to the feeling prison so often leaves inside those who experience it from a young age. The feeling, again, is best described in Arthur's own words:
"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" (pp. 23-4).
Writing is the only way Arthur feels he has ever been able to give anything back to society. Through his writing, Arthur demonstrates the transformative power of remorse and the inherent potential within human beings to reform themselves. His writing casts light into dark corners of what has become in the US a massive - yet, nearly entirely closed-off and hidden - institution. This light leads one to questions that have been articulated best by Arthur himself:
"Being in prison in this country is different now than it ever has been before. There are more people inside - many times more. Never has there been anywhere close to this number."
"...prison has become an industry into which human beings are fed, and out of which is spat a product that is much less capable of functioning in society than the one that went in."
"And sentences are longer and harsher than ever. Is that because people are worse today than they were in the past? Worth less? Less able to redeem themselves, or less deserving of the opportunity to do so?" (p. 19)
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