By Arthur Longworth
For this essay, Arthur Longworth was awarded second place in Memoir in the 2013 PEN Prison Writing Contest.
The physical reality of a prison chain bus is simple really. It matches its definition.
Chain bus: an armed and fortified bus that transports prisoners to or between prisons.
But it is the subjective experience of riding on a chain bus that better defines what it is, even though it’s more difficult to pin down and differs for each individual—depending on who they are, where they are going, and for how long. Even for those on the same chain bus: it’s a different experience for someone heading to prison for only a couple of years compared to another who has been condemned to spend the rest of his life there; different for a person returning to prison for the second or third time, versus someone young and coming in for the first time. And it is certainly different for those bound for The Island or The Reformatory—prisons they can be fairly certain they will be okay in—compared to their luckless brethren being shipped out to Walla Walla.
In Washington State, the arrival and departure hub for chain buses is Shelton, a prison on the west side of the state, not far from Seattle. It’s where prisoners are received from the counties, classified, then assigned to a more permanent prison. At any time, there are some two thousand prisoners crowded into the prison awaiting word of their fate, where they will be sent.
Chain buses depart Shelton five days a week bound for prisons throughout the state, the prisoners on them having received final word of which one they have been assigned to only the night before when a guard slipped a brown paper bag through their cell bars with their DOC number marked on it and the coded initials of their destination. The bag is for them to pack the few legal papers and hygiene items they are permitted to have.
At Shelton, you quickly become eager to get your institutional assignment and leave because of the conditions. A third of the reception center’s prisoners sleep on the dirty concrete floors of cells they are packed into and kept locked inside of all but a short amount of time each day. You are not fed well and allowed only brief access to a crowded communal shower three times a week. The less time you spend at Shelton, the better off you are.
So, every evening at the reception center, you hope for a bag. Every evening except Wednesday evening, which is when they hand out the Walla Walla bags. Even if you have never been there before, you know you don’t want to go because what it is like is not kept a secret by those who have. When you make the list for the Walla Walla chain, chances are that someone somewhere has taken it upon himself not to like you, may even be trying to do you in.
Some prisoners flip when they get a bag for Walla Walla. They pull out all stops in an attempt not to go. Some threaten suicide. Others refuse to leave the cell they are in, resolved to fight it out, come what may. They humiliate themselves to no avail though. The bag is the final word on where you will be sent. Guards at Shelton are experienced in dealing with resisting prisoners and are adept at getting all transferees onto the chain bus when their time comes. If you’re on the list, you’re going to go, one way or another.
It’s early when a guard comes to wake you, banging a flashlight against the steel bars beside your head and reading your last name off his list as though it were a question. Waiting for a response. Then telling you what you already know.
“You’re on the chain. Get up.”
When he leaves, you sit up and pull on a ragged pair of blue coveralls. The same ones you’ve been wearing for a week. They smell, but you don’t notice because there are too many other things turning over in your mind—the turning having kept you from sleeping the few hours that were available to you.
Suddenly, the heavy steel cell door clacks loudly, groans and grinds its way open along gritty runners, the electric motor in the security housing above it droning thickly with the effort. You hear a number of other cell doors opening as well inside the otherwise silent cellblock. Quickly, you strip your bedding from the thin mattress pad and bundle it together, grabbing also the brown paper bag you put your personal items in the night before. Pausing a moment, you look around in the semi-darkness, scanning the tiny cell one last time to ensure you haven’t forgotten anything, even though you already know you haven’t. Your eyes come to a stop on the bulky lump of a prisoner asleep on the upper bunk and suddenly you realize that you’re not going to miss this place. No matter what happens in the future, you won’t miss it. Turning, you step over the prisoner asleep on the floor (unless, of course, that was where you slept) and out of the cell.
You gather downstairs at the front door of the cell house with other prisoners who will be on the chain bus with you. The guard who knocked on your bars not long before is there with his list, checking names off, making certain all those who are supposed to be there are present. (If they’re not, he’ll use the radio clipped to his side.) When everyone has been accounted for, he goes to the door and unlocks it, utilizing one of the large brass keys on his belt.
Outside, it’s cold and still dark. Daylight is not even close. You follow the wide concrete walkway with the others in your group. No guard is with you, but you do it anyway because you are being watched from the gun towers. Besides, there isn’t anywhere else you can go. The walkway is enclosed on all sides by heavy gauge chain link. After a short distance, you come to the entrance of a tunnel veering off to the right, its yawning mouth giving access to a long, steep ramp leading down into the earth. Taking your cue from others, you drop your bedding there on the walkway. Retaining only your small bag of property, you go down into the tunnel.
That’s one of the things about this prison. Each prison having its own unique characteristics—Shelton’s is its underground tunnel system. Deteriorating tunnels, cracked and leaking, they seem on the verge of collapse. If you’re inexperienced with them, it’s easy to wander off course when you’re alone; after turning several corners you might become disoriented, unsure of which direction to go. But there is no worry that you will be lost. Not for long, anyway. A crackling, disembodied voice will bark out of the overhead speaker system soon enough, admonishing you, ordering you in the right direction.
On this particular morning, though, there is no chance you will wander off course because you’re following others, more experienced prisoners who are leading the way, the sound of your collective footsteps reverberating off the damp concrete walls. Talking among the others is scattered and nervous, its murmurous trace echoing away in the same manner as the footsteps. You don’t speak. You’re too busy thinking—if that is what you want to call it—your mind flooded with uncertainty and anxiety.
Prisoners at the front of your group turn left off the main tunnel, taking another tunnel running upwards, and the rest of you follow without question. At the top of the ramp you gather in front of a large steel door and wait. It is the only thing there. That, and the camera above it looking down on you.
After a long minute, there is a sharp clacking sound and a loud buzz. The door swings inward, held open by a guard who counts you as you step through. You are now inside a large single story building—the arrival and departure station for all chain buses—and are greeted by a line of chain-link holding pens.
Guards are there, in the open area in front of the pens, one of them holding a gate open, ushering you inside. When you are in, he closes it behind you, threading a large padlock through the hasp and securing it. Other prisoners are already in there—a dozen of them. And more arrive in groups from other cell houses as you wait.
Many prisoners in the crowded enclosure know or recognize each other. From other prisons or jails. Or, from the free world, perhaps. Some greet each other loudly, enthusiastically, making a show of it. Others are more discreet, talking quietly, not feeling the same need as the first type. Still others remain quiet about who they have recognized, careful to appear as though they haven’t, knowing there will be a better time for it later.
The heavy thump of a cardboard box being dropped to the concrete floor in front of the holding pen gets your attention, as well as everyone else’s around you. Unlocking the gate and pulling it open, a guard pushes the box in with his boot and it’s rushed immediately. Small brown paper packages are being pulled from it.
“One apiece!” The guard bellows, closing the gate again and locking it.
You press in, asserting yourself, grabbing one of the packages for yourself before they have all been taken. Retreating, you look inside your bag and find a dirty, beat up apple and sandwich. Opening the sandwich, you see that it is dry, uncondimented, only a single thin slice of green-tinged bologna, a type of meat that has never been seen in the free world. Indeed, it would not be legal. But you eat it anyway, because you know it is all that you will have until that evening.
The wait after that is interminable. You wonder why they brought you out so early if it was just going to be for this. The talking around you dies down and people retreat into their own thoughts.
Finally, more guards arrive. Three of them enter the building with a clattering of chains. Lots of chains. They are weighed down with them draped over their shoulders. Marching to the front of the holding pen, they drop them in a pile. The activity stirs the people around you, get them talking again, a few asking questions of the guards who brought in the chains. The guards ignore the questions.
These are the Walla Walla guards, the ones who run the chain bus. The Shelton guards are content to stand back and watch them, letting them conduct their business as they see fit. The difference between the reception center penitentiary guards is marked. Tolerant, even cordial with each other, yet distinct—as if from two different gangs.
One of the Walla Walla guards is a sergeant, the stripes pinned to his collar delineating his rank, which is also clear from the way he carries himself in relation to the other two guards. He is counting the prisoners in the cage. Thirty-six, including you. You know because, having nothing else to do, you’ve already long since counted, more times than you can remember. Apparently the number tallies because the sergeant unlocks the gate.
The two prisoners closest to the gate (who have positioned themselves there for just this reason—so they can be first) step out of the cage. Others move forward, taking their place quickly, so they can be next.
Most prisoners have paired up, choosing who they will chain up with. If you haven’t already picked someone, you begin to look around for someone who’s looking around the same as you. You have to be careful though, not to pick the wrong person. You don’t want someone who is too big because you both have to fit on a small bench-like seat and there won’t be enough room. You also don’t want someone with inadequate hygiene habits. Pick someone of your own race, because everything is divided into race in prison, especially where you are going. If you’re tall, don’t pick someone short, because you have to walk with one of your legs chained to his and it makes for an awkward situation.
Then again, sometimes you can’t afford to be picky. The most important thing is that you don’t pick someone who in any way looks odd. Or worse, as though he has something to hide. If they don’t match up to that minimum qualification, pick someone else. The reason for this will be apparent soon enough.
With the person you have chosen, you move forward into the press, positioning yourselves so that you will not be last. There is a reason for this also, which the prisoners who are last will soon discover.
When it’s your turn at the gate, you step out and hand your prison ID card and small bag of property to the sergeant who marks it on a list and drops it with others into a large plastic garbage bag. You begin to strip without having to be told. You’ve already seen more than a dozen others do it before you, so you know what’s expected of you.
Dropping the blue coveralls and pulling off the threadbare state briefs and t-shirt you were issued, you toss them into a plastic bin. Then you go through “the procedure” there in front of everyone, performing it as quickly as you are able to get away with doing it without being ordered to repeat it. You hate it, and hate yourself for doing it. It’s the last little bit of human dignity you have left that is giving you the problem, the small reserve you’ve stashed away and try to keep hidden so that it too is not taken from you. It’s what always makes it difficult in situations like this. What you’re feeling is eased somewhat by the fact that you know what you are doing is required of all prisoners, what you all must endure. It shouldn’t make it any easier. After all, it is what it is. But, thankfully, it does. A little.
After checking your shoes, the guard in front of you drops them to the floor. Another tosses you a pair of orange coveralls that smell worse than the ones you just took off. No socks. No underwear. The shoes are all you are allowed to retain.
When you have the coverall on and the Velcro front pressed closed, you turn around, standing next to the prisoner you have chosen to do this with, your back to the guard. You lift your arms so that your waist can be encircled and cinched with a chain. The guard tells you to pull in your belly, but you push it out instead, expanding it as much as possible, knowing it’s difficult for him to discern what you are doing beneath the oversized coveralls. You know that anyone stupid or inexperienced enough to let them cinch the chain around his waist while his belly is drawn in will more than regret it. What they will experience during the trip will graduate from mere misery to full-fledged torture. The guard pulls the chain tightly around your distended midsection and fastens it in place with a padlock behind you.
You lower your arms and allow your wrists to be placed into the steel cuffs attached to the belly chain. If they’re ratcheted too tightly, you may have to throw a fit. You can ask nicely first, for them to be loosened, but be insistent. If they’re unresponsive, act agitated, as though you’re ready to escalate the situation. They’re on a schedule, so make them think you’re prepared to make their job difficult. Don’t worry about consequences either, because it’s worth going to the Hole over. The effects of what happens to you there are not as immediate as the agony you will be in soon if you let them clamp down the cuffs. You feel as though you can tolerate it at first, but then your wrists quickly swell. The steel bracelets bite into them and you begin to writhe in pain, wanting to bellow. It gets worse from there.
You follow the order, sinking down where you stand, along with the prisoner beside you, so that you can be chained together at the leg. A cuff around one of your ankles, and one around his, with a short length of chain between.
You get back to your feet, but not easily. You realize how awkward it is being chained to another person. No matter how many times you’ve been through it, it’s something you realize anew each time.
It’s time for you to walk, to make your way with the person you’re chained to, as best you can. Together you hobble, however ineptly, down the run lined with holding pens to the back door of the building which is open, awaiting your exit, a guard posted beside it, leaning against the wall, watching you. You can see the chain bus parked thirty yards outside the door.
The cool air hits you when you step out, piercing the thin coveralls as though they weren’t there. Your muscles tense in an attempt to ward off the cold. It’s still dark outside, no hint of rising light.
At the door of the bus you pause, pushing close to the prisoner you’re chained to and synchronizing your movements with his in order to make it through the narrow doorway and up three tall steps. Inside, you sidle past the stinking steel toilet whose dark, stomach-wrenching liquid is constantly slopping out onto the floor when the bus is moving. The smell is overpowering. This is why you did not want to be the last pair chained.
You move up the narrow aisle, one of you in front of the other, between the rows of small, bench-like seats. Finding the most distant available seat from the sloshing, rolling sewer, you and your chain-partner slide onto its hard surface.
There are lights on in the bus. Dim ones that bathe everything in an odd yellow cast. At first it’s difficult to make out any detail of the wheeled fortress around you. But after a minute, your eyes become used to it. You can see that the windows are barred and slatted with wide steel shutters that leave only a narrow gap to see through. The front and rear of the compartment you are in is sealed off with steel and panes of clear, bulletproof Lexan that separate you from where the guards are.
When all prisoners are on the bus, a guard slides closed the heavy steel door at the back of the compartment and padlocks it from the outside. Then the outer door slams shut—the one at the bottom of the steps.
Moments later, the big engine at the back of the bus rumbles as it’s fed diesel. All three guards are on board now. The brake releases and you begin to move, the steel and Lexan shuddering, making a racket you’ll long become deaf to before you get where you’re going.
Moving slowly down the wide center road of the prison, the bus approaches the perimeter gate, which opens before it. Pulling through this inner gate, it eases up to the outer one and stops. The gate you just passed through now closes, sliding quietly on well-maintained runners, sealing the bus inside a sally port.
A guard from the gatehouse steps up into the bus. You see him when he brings his face close to the pane of Lexan that looks back into the compartment you’re in and you realize he’s counting, which seems absurd. As if they don’t already know how many prisoners are on the bus. A moment later he is gone.
The outer perimeter gate rolls open and the engine rumbles again. The bus pulls out of the sally port, out of the prison, and stops. One of the guards exits the bus and crosses to a small, bunkered building that he enters. A minute later he reappears carrying a nylon gun case in one hand and a metal briefcase in the other. Inside the bus he opens the briefcase, which contains three handguns, and distributes them, including one to himself. Each guard slips his firearm into the holster he is wearing. Every prisoner watches them do it. From the nylon case are taken two AR-15 rifles, which are places in a rack next to the driver’s seat. Then a shotgun is placed beside the rifles.
When the guard takes his seat, the bus begins its journey, pulling out onto a road that will quickly take it to the main highway. The internal lights go out, bringing darkness to the compartment you are in. It’s the moment when those who don’t know better relax. But the experienced remain alert, ready. This is the time for anyone recognized earlier by an enemy.
Sometimes the attacks are personal, instigated by bad blood between individuals. These are usually the least serious. They’re not meant to be, but there is only so much two prisoners chained in such a way can do to each other, even if one is caught unaware by the attack.
More common, though, is the kind of attack carried out against anyone who has been identified as a “rat” or a “rapo” (a rat being anyone who has informed on someone else, and a rapo anyone in prison for a sex-related offense). These attacks are open for all prisoners to join in on. The offending party is dragged down and stomped, his cries smothered. I don’t believe anyone has actually ever been killed like this, yet it is merciless. Serious injuries and other humiliations are inflicted on and suffered by the restrained victim. For anyone who has never witnessed this type of attack, it carries with it an inertia of its own, impossible to stop once it has begun, gathering momentum as it proceeds. To his attackers, the victim becomes much more than what he, in fact, is: the prosecutor that put him away, the public defender who sold him out, the self-righteous judge who condemned him to his sentence, and the state which now holds him and takes all his money. The attacker metes out to his victim, in his own way, what he feels has been done to him. He taps into a force that is wholly destructive—harmful and disturbing in its application—yet a prison ritual, twisted empowerment. (How can I be powerless if this is what I can do to another human being?) Manifestation of wrath. Indeed, the wrath of the powerless.
Outside the scratched and dusty window, I see that the landscape has changed drastically from the beginning of the bus ride. No more of the green-forested expanses and mountains of the west side of the state. They have long since fallen behind, replaced by sagebrush, low scrub, and rolling, bare hills.
How long have I been on this bus? It feels like forever, although if I were able to see a clock, I would know it was just under nine hours. Slumped on the cramped and narrow seat, I am exhausted, despite the fact that I haven’t done anything, have moved as little as possible.
It’s hot, the air not moving. Stinking coveralls that stick to me all over and itch. For the hundredth time, I reach up to wipe at the sweat running down the side of my face, but am stopped short by the steel cuff that bites painfully into my sore and swollen wrist. Wincing, I give up the effort.
Everywhere around me people are talking. The kind of meaningless babble people spew when they’re nervous and don’t have anything else to do. Bullshit and false bravado. Recounting stories of terrible things that have happened to prisoners at The Walls, of how difficult it is to make it there. Difficult for everyone, of course, except for them. Hearing them tell it, they don’t have anything to worry about, they’re already hooked in. Two seats in front of me, the informant lay crumpled and broken on the floor, no longer even trying to get up, his head swollen, misshapen, and bloody. An ear torn nearly in two, flesh splayed open. Spit all over him, clots of thick, discolored phlegm. It’s hard for me to feel sorry for him. He did not even try to fight back, which, because of where I come from, I don’t understand. And his submissiveness had only intensified the assault.
I think about the conversation exchanged earlier with the prisoner across the aisle from me, a conversation started when he asked how old I was. An experienced con giving me advice, all the while, his eyes betraying what it is he really believes—that I am too young, that I won’t make it. His advice is bullshit.
I feel resolve stirring inside me. Determination. It’s funny because I know I wasn’t supposed to have made it this far. My plan was to kill myself after sentencing, after being given the life sentence. Nothing elaborate. A simple slicing of the wrist veins, bleeding out unnoticed on a steel bunk beneath a ragged blanket. The razor blade already waiting, cached in a crevice between floor and toilet in the county jail cell. Then, the plan frustrated when I was whisked directly from sentencing onto a county transport vehicle and taken to Shelton. Yet, not worrying because the plan I had for my future was one I knew I could pick up again as soon as I got to wherever it was they were sending me.
But now, the prickling of anger in my heart. “Not going to make it? Why? Who’s going to do what to me? Motherfucker, I got a life sentence. Motherfucker, I’m already dead.”
My eyes wandering again to the unmoving form of the savaged informant.
“Ain’t nobody going to do nothing to me.”
The words mouthed under my breath. “Ain’t nobody going to do nothing.” Trying to make myself believe it.
I remind myself that I’ve been in bad places before, many times. “Just another boys’ home… just another boys’ home…” My mantra.
Windmills off to the right. I see them through the dirty window, sprouting up out of the side of a barren, gray hill. Towering and white, unmoving. Like the moment, frozen in time.
Suddenly, the talking falls silent, only the deafening rattle of the steel and Lexan fortress remaining, the drone of the engine beneath it.
On the left, it has appeared in the distance. Giant granite wall, casting a cursed shadow.
Arthur Longworth 299180 C238
Monroe Correctional Complex - WSRU
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777
This article about Art appeared on the front page of the Seattle Times in 2012.
Concurrently, NPR did a related story on The Liz Jones Show.