Problem Child: A conversation through the walls of solitary confinement

by Arthur Longworth

Re-posted from  YES! Magazine, originally posted on Jun 03, 2011

Standing at the cell door in Walla Walla IMU, looking out, I can see that they are preparing to bring someone in. I realize I know him—the prisoner on the leash. Reno Malava, a young Samoan who in the regular prison is known as “Problem Child.” And I know why he is in IMU, too—the assault of a guard named Pearson. Not the kind of action that under normal circumstances could be ascribed to this simple (no doubt, developmentally disabled) prisoner. But this is a place where no circumstances are normal.

The assault happened on the big yard, arising out of an incident in which black prisoners attacked a group of Asians. It is into this situation that the guard, Pearson, made the decision to interject himself. Maybe it was because he saw Problem as the linchpin of the fight—the one who most stood out—that he decided to charge him from behind.

Absorbing the hit by Pearson, Problem turned his attention on him immediately. Lifting the guard off the ground, he flung him down hard, slamming him onto his side and breaking his ankle. Problem then began punching him.

I’ll be without a towel and bar of soap now for two days. But I give these things unhesitantly, without reserve. Because I know what it’s like to be where he is.

The guard in the gun tower was going crazy. He wanted to shoot—no doubt, kill. But Pearson was there …

Suddenly, the heavy steel door leading into the cellblock pops loudly as the electronic locking mechanism inside it is unlatched, the sound causing my mind to return in that moment to where it is that I physically am, at the narrow viewing slot of a cell door in IMU.

The guards enter the block with Problem, and I notice for the first time that one of them is Pearson. The one holding the leash. Marching the Samoan forward, they direct him into where I already knew they would and close the door behind him. It is the cell next to the one I am in. The cell is painted with feces from the last prisoner who occupied it.

Taking aim at the half-inch gap beneath the cell door with the folded and flattened end of an empty toothpaste tube I’ve fashioned specifically for this purpose, I flick it through the opening, sending it skittering across the stained concrete floor outside the cell. I know it has come to rest in front of the cell next door; a thin line (of threads that I have pulled from my orange coveralls and painstakingly braided together for strength) trails out behind it, leading back to me. Seated on the floor beside the door, I wait.

After a moment, I feel movement through the line, and I know that it is being retrieved. A moment after that, a dull, thudding sound comes to me through the wall. Quickly, I tie a discolored towel onto the line. Then, pressing it down against the floor, I push it out beneath the door.

When it is fully out, I rap my knuckles against the cell wall and feel the line again begin to move, being taken in at the other end as I play out slack on mine. I’ll be without a towel and bar of soap now for two days. But I give these things unhesitantly, without reserve. Would, indeed, give more if I could. Because I know what it’s like to be where he is.

When I have retrieved my line, I flatten myself out on the floor with my face close to the gap beneath the door and begin to speak. I ask Problem why they moved him and am surprised to discover that he has come directly from a sentencing hearing.

They have seized the little money he had in his prison account and levied a debt against him that is more than he can ever hope to repay …

I ask what the judge sentenced him to and am startled to hear that it is only eight months. I know that the prosecutor had been asking for eight years. Officials at the prison, even more. And because I also know that the Samoan is as destitute as any of the rest of us here—in no way able to afford a real attorney that would actually help him—and knows nothing of the law himself, nor is good with words, I can’t help but wonder what persuaded the judge to take it easy on him.

I ask him if he got a chance to speak in court, and he tells me that he did. He says that although he was unsure of what to say at first, he decided to tell the judge about what already happened to him at the prison. The fact that he has been in IMU for more than a year and that the prison administrator overseeing his case has told him he will spend at least two more years here, that the prison has extended his sentence by several years by taking all of his Good Conduct Time (all that he has earned in the past and can possibly earn in the future as well), that they have seized the little money he had in his prison account and levied a debt against him that is more than he can ever hope to repay, that any money his family or anyone else sends him is now taken from him.

“Yes,” I think as I listen to him. “That’s right.” This prisoner who is not good with words, relaying the simple truth, found (what seems to me to be) the perfect words.

I ask him what the judge said, and he tells me that at first it wasn’t anything, that he looked for some time at the guards gathered in the courtroom, around the prosecutor’s table and in the audience behind it. But then, finally, he asked if it was true, what the prisoner in front of him had said. But he didn’t receive an answer.

“What’d he say then?” I ask, impatient to know. And for the first time since he was moved into the cell next to me, I hear him laugh. Not a loud laugh and not a lot, but enough for me to hear that it is infused with a genuine gladness. Perhaps, relief as well. Then he repeats for me what it was that the judge said.

“It sounds to me like this man has already been punished.”

I feel it inside of me then too, stirred up from somewhere deep down. And suddenly, it spills out. My laughter joins his.

Arthur Longworth is a 45-year-old prison inmate, now serving time in Monroe, Wash. This article is adapted for Beyond Prisons, the Summer 2011 issue of YES! Magazine, from the essay, “Walla Walla IMU,” which won PEN American Center’s 2010 Prison Writing Contest.

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