Thursday, July 27, 2017


By Arthur Longworth

Timmy`s a mess. If he were free, you`d call him developmentally-disabled and allot him a certain amount of consideration. But he`s not free, so no one does.

Timmy lives in front of the guards, in a cell no one wants because of where it`s located - the point from which guards administer the cellblock, a half dozen feet or less from Timmy 24-7. I’m not sure that Timmy even notices them. He`s in the cell by himself, which is all that he cares about because it means that he doesn`t have to clean. And. believe me, he doesn`t. I know because guards won`t search the cell. They fill out cell search paperwork as though they do, but they don’t. I heard one guard tell another, "I don`t care if the superintendent orders it. I ain`t goin` in there."

Timmy looks 13, although he`s 37. His childlike facial features and narrow, underdeveloped shoulders sit atop a midsection swollen with a thick roll of jelly-like fat. He`s frail, racked with a palsied trembling expressed most pronouncedly in his truncated hands. The shaking, I think, is induced by the handful of psychotropics he gets every day at Med-line. He smells like milk long past its expiration date, and it`s no wonder because no one here has ever seen him shower. When his hair becomes too long and matted for guards to ignore, they escort him to the barber who shaves his head. His arm is scarred, the muscle shriveled and the skin disfigured as if it were burned.

When Timmy leaves his cell, one of his pant legs is nearly always caught in his sock. His
prison-issue canvas belt is twisted around his waist and he`s missed at least one belt loop. In violation of prison standards, his dirty oversized t-shirt is untucked. He doesn`t care for the uncompromisingly cliquish atmosphere of the chowhall, so every evening there`s the comedy of him hunched over his tray, bolting down his food and hurrying off in the odd, disjointed shuffling manner in which he perambulates. On sunny days, he goes to the Yard with a clear plastic cup of freeze-dried coffee mixed so strong it`s stained the plastic dark. He sits down in the center of the Yard, away from everyone, unmoving, staring at nothing, unbothered by everything happening around him. The same spot on the Yard every time. When there`s a number of sunny days in a row, the grass becomes tamped down where he sits. He stays there until a guard`s voice crackles over the p.a. system, so loud and distorted it`s scarcely intelligible, ordering us back to our cells for count.

I don`t go near Timmy, nor let him near me. Nothing personal. It`s just that no matter how settled in routine or predictable a prisoner like Timmy seems, he`s not predictable. He might collapse into convulsions next to me - like Thomas did. Or begin babbling and lash out in a fit at imaginary figures in the corridor- like Lurch. In case you can`t tell, I`ve seen it before. Anyone who`s spent any amount of time in prison has. Sometimes l catch myself watching Timmy, both fascinated at how he has come to navigate this environment and appalled that he`s here. This isn`t a medical or mental health facility: it`s a prison. Real prison things happen here. When the Surenos and Nortenos went at it a couple months ago, Timmy walked right through the middle of them. When the tower guard opened fire. Timmy didn`t even know that he was supposed to lay belly-down on the ground. But that doesn`t happen all the time; Timmy`s okay most of the time if any circumstance in prison can be described as okay: "okay" only meaning that he is able to get by.

Occasionally, other prisoners try to make a mark of Timmy. Someone will talk him out of his dinner for a week for a shot of coffee. Or charge him ten stamped envelopes for a peanut butter sandwich when he`s hungry. I cut those deals off. I don`t tell you that because l think I deserve credit. Because I don`t. It isn`t difficult. In fact, it usually only entails letting the person know that I know. "You must be a hell of a hustler outside prison if you gotta’ come in here and do this." Other prisoners aren`t really the worst part of prison for Timmy though. Certainly not what`s the most harmful.

This is Timmy’s second trip to prison. And the consentient belief among prisoners here is that he burned down a halfway house. It`s a part of the lore that`s risen around him that even I bought into until I found out otherwise. Because it`s easier to believe the state would send someone like Timmy to prison for lighting a fire than for forgery, which is the unconscionable reason why he`s really here.

Timmy was sent to prison the first time on a drug charge, about ten years ago, when all the prisons in this state were overrun with people in on those kind of charges. The first time I saw him, he was buried in a stifling cell at the far end of one of the seemingly endless tiers in the Hole at the state penitentiary. The tiers are divided into chain-link segments that resemble the dog runs in a kennel. Each cell is a tiny, windowless compartment sealed with an unyielding steel door. I was locked away in Timmy`s segment, sweating it out two sealed compartments down from him, when he fell apart.

Timmy was in the Hole because the prisoners in the cell that prison administrators assigned him to had beaten him up. They didn`t want to live with him. And who can blame them? In the general population of that prison, the state shoves four prisoners into the constricted cells designed to hold two. We have to find a way to exist, literally, on top of each other; it`s too close of quarters for someone who doesn`t wash himself. Timmy spent every day silently rocking back and forth sealed inside that eell in the Hole, not making a noise. Until the day he began to kick the cell door, so loud and insistently that l felt the concussion in my cell, the reverberation passing through the concrete and steel, invading my flesh, crowding out any possibility of ignoring it. "What the fuck is wrong with you?! Shut your ass up!"

Timmy finally did shut up. He was unconscious and covered in blood when guards in latex gloves pulled him from the cell. l realized when I saw his swollen, misshapen head that he hadn`t been kicking the cell door but, rather, ramming himself head first into it.  I learned later that Timmy`s arm was so eaten up by staph (MRSA: the particularly virulent. prison-type of staph) that he almost lost it. That`s why his arm looks the way it does now. Nothing about Timmy`s experience in the Hole was okay - "not okay" meaning that it was too much for him, he was not able to deal with it.

I suppose that`s why Timmy`s in my thoughts now. You see, word is that guards took him to the Hole today while I was at work. For arguing. You can`t argue with the guards here, especially not the ones on swing shift. Everyone knows that. Everyone except, of course, Timmy.

Arthur Longworth #299180
Monroe Correctional Complex - WSR
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272
Arthur Longworth is a five-time national PEN award winner whose essays have been published by The Marshall Project, VICE News, and YES! Magazine. He is also the author of ZEK: An American Prison Story (Gabalfa Press, 2016), a work of creative nonfiction that lays bare the experience of mass incarceration from the inside. For more info., go to:

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Anonymous said...

I thinks its very admirable that Arthur wrote of Timmy. We need more awareness about what goes on in prisons. What can be done? The mentally ill dont belong locked away and forgotten about. It saddens me. God is merciful. Prayers for you Arthur and Timmy as well.God bless.

Anonymous said...

Your writting is simply so beautifully expressed Arthur. My heart breaks for this guy Timmy. As you so rightly say he does not belong in a prison cell. It's not the fault of the prison but a fault and a shame of the powers that be. There is also shame to be had on the prisoners who prey on him and show him no compassion. Thank you for caring enough to write about this forgotten soul who is obviously so very troubled. Stay strong of mind yourself and take care. JANE