Robert Longworth was awarded First Place in memoir in the PEN American Center’s 2010 Prison Writing Contest, for his piece about life in solitary confinement in the Intensive Management Unit, or IMU, at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.
Longworth provides this biography on the PEN website: “I am a forty-five year old state-raised prisoner. And, I will not be silent. Most of the time I have spent at the state penitentiary in Walla Walla, WA—which is also the subject of my essay. Entering the prison with only a 7th-grade education, I taught myself to write by reading books from the prison library. I work as a Spanish language translator.”
The bread is moving. A small piece broken off of what was pushed through the narrow cuffport to me earlier that morning. A horde of tiny red ants have surrounded it, are beneath it, hefting it up on little ant shoulders as they struggle to carry it back to where they live, a crack in the concrete floor a short distance away. Their task appears impossible. But the bread, I know, will soon make it to the crack. It always does.
Why do I do this? My mind searches for an answer as I continue watching the ants, looking down at them from where I sit cross-legged on the cell floor in stinking orange coveralls. Because they’re living beings? In some way like me?
Another question rises in my mind, piqued by the ones before it. “I am still alive, aren’t I?” And as ridiculous as the question seems, it holds my attention because it’s hard for me to be certain of anything in this place anymore. I haven’t spoken in months. What do I actually have to verify that I am still alive? A heartbeat? It strikes me that someone dead may still perceive his heart as beating. Breath? Dead people probably think they’re breathing too.
I look at the heavy steel cell door beside me. That is something—what keeps me sealed inside this concrete box, this IMU cell. If I am no longer alive, would it still do this to me? God, I hope not. I motherfucking hope not. The thought scares me. Deepens despair. Hell, in my mind, not the fiery nether world of Christianity. How can I adopt an abstract when I know something worse, a thousand times more concrete?…
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