Admin Note: Several Minutes Before Six contributors spent Christmas this year in the Hole. Almost all of our contributors have spent time in the Hole at some point during their incarceration. Arthur Longworth describes in excruciating detail what it means to be sent to the Hole. Be forewarned that this essay is graphic and please keep in mind how brave those who are forced to endure it are called upon to be.
The Hole isn’t merely a place inside of the prison, it’s an entire psychology used against you—a weaponized psychology—one that must have taken an incredible amount of malicious effort and forethought to develop, and one that’s not just used here at this prison. I’ve seen it on the news, used by American prison guards on prisoners in other countries. The only difference between these prisoners and us being that when it happens to them, there’s a world-wide reaction of outrage, disgust, condemnation. That it is happening to us—and has been for as long as I can remember—no one seems to care. Still, I harbor no resentment toward the prisoners in other countries for being noticed, being cared about. On the contrary, the world-wide exposure of how they are treated, to me, feels like a victory, however small.
My internal voice shouts, “See! See! That is how we are treated! It’s not rogue guards!” The fact that there has been world-wide concern feels like a victory to me as well. It almost makes me dare to believe that if people knew what happens to us... if they knew... there would be concern for us too, outrage, disgust, condemnation.
I’m not sure about the political correctness of saying this (then again, as a political non-being... a person who has never been allowed to vote, nor ever will... I’m not particularly concerned): When I see how American guards have treated prisoners in other countries... when I see the orange coveralls... I can’t help but feel that we American prisoners share more in common with them now than we do with our own countrymen, so complete is our alienation. What I’m saying isn’t any type of political espousement either. At least, I don’t mean it to be. I’m speaking as a human being. And as a human being, this is how I can’t help but feel.
Let me describe for you a little about the Hole: They bring you in handcuffed, into one of the segregation blocks, and put you in a barred cage (one of a number of small steel holding cages set together in a row at the front of every block and open to the view of all staff in the unit; male and female). When you’re locked inside, you’re ordered to turn around and back up to the door. This is so that the handcuffs can be removed and retrieved back through the bars.
In front of the cage are two guards. Sometimes more, depending on what they brought you in for. But never less. They order you to strip, there in front of anyone who would care to see, and they take everything from you.
This strip is the procedure for everyone, no prisoner is able to avoid it. Anyone who balks or hesitates to perform it is dealt with quickly, in a manner familiar to all prisoners here—they are sprayed with a burning, decapacitating chemical; shocked into insensibility with powerful electric charges and then beaten into submission (or out of consciousness) with gloved fists, flashlights, and batons. This is done, I suppose, so the prisoner knows in the future what is required of him, what his place is in the prison... so all prisoners know.
What I’m telling you about here isn’t anything out of the ordinary, nor anything that isn’t supposed to happen. This is the way it is when guards are following the prison’s written guidelines and regulations for their actions. I won’t tell you what it’s like when you’re confronted by guards who have their own way of following written procedure, or don’t give a damn about it at all.
You’re directed through the procedure with verbal commands you have long since committed to memory, the words having been burned into your consciousness with the searing heat of a million humiliations.
You pin your ears forward with your fingers and turn your head to each side.
You open your mouth and lean slightly forward so that it can be inspected through the bars.
“Lift the tongue.”
You again use your fingers. This time, to pull back your upper and lower lip.
You hold your hands forward with fingers spread, then flip them, so that both sides may be inspected.
You raise your arms to expose your armpits.
“Lift and separate.”
You lift your penis and testicles in turn.
The order is terse, impatient.
You lift your feet off the dirty concrete floor one at a time, showing their bottoms.
“All right, bend over and spread ’em.” (That’s the actual order given. The order for you to bend forward and reach behind you with your hands in order to separate your buttocks so that guards can inspect your anus. You know why you are being given this order and it’s not because it’s believed something might actually be found on you. The reason for it, the psychology behind it, is much deeper than that. What they’re doing, or trying to do, is much more than search you. Of course, at this point, you can always refuse to cooperate… but I’ve already told you what happens in that circumstance. At some point, you will comply. I guarantee it. I’m ashamed to admit, millions of us already have. What would make you any different?)
Afterward, still inside the cage, you’re issued a set of ragged pink underwear, orange coveralls, and a pair of broken plastic sandals. Unless, of course, you’re one of the ones that opt to be gassed, shocked, and beaten. If that is the case, then you aren’t issued anything. You’ll remain naked and frozen. At least, for the next ten days.
The color of the underwear (which has been intentionally dyed the color it is) is an extension of what they are trying to do to you with the search. It makes some prisoners mad to have to put it on, but not me. I don’t give a damn about pink underwear, because I remember... because I remember a time not long ago when things were worse. When I put on the pink underwear now, I’m thankful... grateful to the old convict from this prison who managed to convince a free world judge to issue an order that stopped the prison from doing what they used to do to us at this point of our induction into the Hole—a procedure called the “digital probe.” If not for him, how could I have made it this far? I don’t believe for an instant that I could have.
Digital probe means that a team of guards chains you up hand and foot, then holds you down so someone can stick a finger in your ass and search around for awhile. It was one of the things that every prisoner was subjected to; no one was able to avoid it. And, don’t let me mislead you, the judge’s order didn’t altogether stop its use either. They still do it. Just not all the time. No longer as a blanket procedure. No longer can it happen to a prisoner half a dozen times in a week.
I know what I’m telling you about is awful. But it’s real, that’s why I’m telling you. It’s not something I want to talk about... with anyone, believe me. On the other hand, my aversion of it is outweighed by the need for people to know. People who don’t know what is happening here inside prison, or why it doesn’t seem to be working. If anyone from the free world is confused about how a person could come to prison for a non-violent offense, then after doing time in here, get out and kill someone, they need to watch a tape of a digital probe.
When you have the orange coveralls on and have slipped into the plastic sandals, you’re required to turn around and back up to the cage door again so that handcuffs can be ratcheted back onto your wrists. But, this time, there’s something else. This time, you’re put on a leash as well. It’s the way you’re taken anywhere in the Hole. On a leash, like a dog. It’s the same for everyone there; no one is able to get out of it.
I’ve watched guards lead prisoners around on dog leashes for years here. I’ve been led around on them myself more times than I would ever want to count and I’ve never been able to see a practical purpose for it. No practical purpose other than, perhaps, a furtherance of what they’re trying to accomplish with the way they conduct strip searches, or by giving you pink underwear. It makes me mad. I hide it behind the blank slate of an expressionless prison face, not wanting to give them the satisfaction of knowing they have gotten to me, have in some way been able to affect me but, the truth is, I get angry and I’m not even completely sure why. It isn’t that I really believe I’m better than a dog. I’ve lived too long in here to believe that, too long to be caught up in the same illusions people in the free world have about themselves. Maybe I get angry because I know that even dogs have it better than us. At least, when they’re on their leash they’re not hated.
My internal voice gives words to what it is I feel. “Chain me on a leash. Okay, I can deal with that. But don’t do it and hate me, treat me with contempt, or worse, act as though I’m not even there. Mother fucker, don’t do that to me!”
On the leash, they take you onto one of the tiers, a long line of twenty-six very small cells all in a row. There are many tiers. But they take you to the one you’ve been assigned to, the one you’ll be filed away in.
There are two guards, both with their hands on you, directing your movements by pulling and pushing, how they feel about you clearly communicated through the physical contact; no words are necessary. Sometimes there are more guards. Never less.
Making your way down the tier, you’re struck by how like a kennel it is. Each little barred compartment containing a captive charge, looking haunted, watching as you pass. Until, at last, you reach your own compartment, the one reserved for you, and you’re pushed inside, locked in.
After the handcuffs are taken off and the leash is removed, the guards leave, yet their eyes remain. They are always there. Cameras outside the cells looking in, never blinking, never looking away, even for a moment.
The cell itself is stifling, airless. That’s what hits you first about it. There’s no circulation, no oxygen. Everything has been breathed and re-breathed; you feel like you’re drowning. Then you notice how dirty it is. Filthy. Foulness built up over the years, compounded layer on top of layer, and there is nothing to clean it with. If you think the guards are going to come back and bring you something to clean with, you haven’t been here very long.
You can always tell those guys—the ones who haven’t been in very long. They’re the ones who can’t believe they’re being treated the way they are. Someone somewhere has got to care... don’t they? It’s one of the few things that can bring a smile, however slight, to a hardened lifer’s face, a minor bit of comedy, a small respite in the endless tragedy that is life. How a lifelong poor man might feel seeing a millionaire fallen onto bad times.
The internal voice again. “You’re on your own, Baby. Get used to it. Ain’t no one give a fuck about you. Least of all, us motherfuckers who been in here for years, dealing with it. Going through it while you were free, out there on the streets. How does it feel now? You like that? Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about!”
The cell is small, the size of a closet in the free world. Its space is mostly taken up by a concrete slab, which is what you sleep on, a small sink/toilet combination, an unblinking bright light that you can’t turn off... and nothing else.
You never see a clock, but you become an expert at guessing the time. It’s important to you for some reason. You don’t realize how important until you find yourself in that situation. Guessing doesn’t always work though, especially after long periods of time. Something breaks down, your mind plays tricks on you and you lose time. It feels as though it’s been stolen from you. Months pass, until a guard lets slip the day or date and you realize with a sudden heaviness pressing down on your heart, it’s been only a week.
There are no books to read. At least, not for the first week. After that, you might be lucky enough to come across a complete one (a small number of jealously guarded books are passed like precious contraband from prisoner to prisoner in the Hole). A book containing all of its pages is a treasure in this place. You ration it to yourself, trying to maintain the discipline of only reading a few pages at a time, limiting it to a certain amount per day. When you’re finished, you feel as though you’ve lost your best friend... until you open it to its first page and begin to read it again.
I heard a prison administrator here say once that the prison’s segregation cellblocks are used only for the worst prisoners, the ones that need to be there. The truth is, you can be sent there for nearly anything; sneaking a bit of sugar out of the chow hall, talking back to a guard or, if you’re dumb enough to do it, filing a complaint against one. Sometimes you’re sent for nothing at all—because the prison is too crowded. The only space they have left is the Hole.
Mental illness has also, for as long as I can remember, been another reason prisoners are sent to the Hole. Actually, it’s where most of the prison’s mentally ill population is kept. I’m not talking about dangerous prisoners, either—I’m talking about the ones who are in there because staff would rather not deal with them, don’t know how to deal with them.
When you’re taken to the Hole, it’s rarely for less than a month. Many times, it’s for a year, or more. When it’s over a month, they don’t tell you how long you’ll be in there. It’s part of the game they play with you and the best way to deal with it is to just chalk it up. Don’t expect anything from them... even to get out... If you do, you’re asking to be broken. Accept what’s around you, as if it’s all there is in the world. Want nothing more. A prisoner who waits for each month to go by to see if the next one is when they will finally let him out, will be broken. I guarantee it. You’re dead, man. Accept it. An animate corpse, sitting alone inside your concrete tomb, beneath a fluorescent light that stays on twenty-four hours a day. Prisoners here do years like this, DEAD. I’ve done years like this. Many of them.
This essay received an Honorable Mention in essay in the 2008 PEN America Prison Writing Contest.
I’m 48 years old and have been in prison for about 30 years with a Life Without Parole sentence. I instruct a university Spanish language course for University Behind Bars, a non-profit prison education program. The Prison Diary of Arthur Longworth is available through University Beyond Bars.
This article featuring Art appeared on the front page of The Seattle Times in 2012. Concurrently, NPR did a related story on the Liz Jones Show.
Arthur Longworth 299180 C-238
Monroe Correctional Complex – WSR
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272