Life in prison is a little easier when you can find a good book to absorb your waking hours. But when you’re in solitary, reading can become an unsettling experience, writes a Washington State inmate.
Last year, I underwent a private forensic psychological evaluation in preparation for a parole hearing that could have set me free. Having served 25 years in confinement at that time of the evaluation, the results did not surprise me.
According to the psychologist:
Results indicate that the respondent does not currently appear to satisfy DSM-IV-TR diagnostic criteria for PTSD [Posttraumatic Stress Disorder] or ASD [Acute Stress Disorder], despite reporting a significant trauma history. Nonetheless, he does report significant levels of posttraumatic re-experiencing and avoidance, which is suggestive of posttraumatic stress that falls short of a diagnosable disorder. Individuals with such clinical presentations, although not meeting the full criteria for PTSD/ASD, may suffer considerable distress and often benefit from psychological treatment and/or pharmacotherapy.
Indeed, I often do experience “considerable distress” as recognized by the psychologist. The most recent incident during which I had to suffer through “post-traumatic re-experiencing” occurred while I was reading the prologue to Zek: An American Prison Story.
The author, Arthur Longworth—who has spent the last 34 years confined in the State of Washington for a murder that he committed at the age of 18—managed to make me nauseous with a four-page scene that most people would not have found to be anxiety-inducing.
Here is how the scene unfolds.
A prisoner is in long-term solitary confinement. For six months, he has been on isolation status, and has been allowed nothing other than some hygiene products and clothing. Down the cellblock, another prisoner has just been forcibly removed from his cell after being sprayed with mace, tazed and wrestled down into submission, trussed up with his ankles and wrists cuffed together, then carried off to another cell where he will remain naked for an indeterminate period.
Cell extraction complete, the prisoner notices a book amidst the other prisoner’s blood and pepper spray-smeared bedding, which was thrown out on the tier when guards removed the former occupant’s belongings.
The prisoner finds the sight uplifting, for he has not been allowed any books during the six months that he has been on isolation status.
So, he makes an improvised grappling device with thread from his underwear, a plastic comb, and several staples that he had secreted in a crack between the floor and wall; and, after numerous attempts at snagging the book as if he is fly fishing, he manages to reel in his catch and happily begins to read.
This is when my stomach got queasy, as the narrative continued with the following:
Several hours later, he let the book’s cover close but continued to stare at it for some time. Any other book he would have rationed—reading a page or two at a time, holding himself to only enough per day to keep his mind from eroding, yet still have more to read for the next day—that was the way he had learned to do it in that place. He had found that it wasn’t possible with this book, though. (Longworth:11).
Reading this really disturbed me.
It had been a long time since I had been in long-term solitary confinement. Given this reprieve, I had apparently suppressed these seemingly mundane experiences from my mind—and the memories came flooding back to me when reading this all-too-real work of fiction.
To find a book that is so good that you cannot resist the temptation to continue reading it—as if you are in the free world or the general prison population, and rationing your reading material is unnecessary to protect your sanity—is an absolute disaster when locked away in long-term solitary confinement.
Long ago, I too learned the necessity of book rationing.
From the age of 15 to 24, I spent a total of six years in isolation, confined 23 hours each day in my cell, and was only provided with two books every week.
Every time that I submitted my books to be exchanged I spent the interim worrying that I would receive books in return that I had already read, given that there were no more than 500 books available and approximately 75 prisoners clamoring to get their hands on them.
With so few books, the longer a prisoner stayed in segregation the higher the probability that he was going to be disappointed when those books slid under the door.
Yet even when I received books that I still had not read, my feelings would soon cycle between irritation and fury because of the surprises that awaited me. Without fail, there would be random messages scrawled on the pages declaring, for instance:
Mo Money, Moe Bitches.
Fuck the Police.
A page (or all of them) might also have every instance of the letter “b” or “c” crossed out by a gang member who decided that the inside of a book was an appropriate place to start pseudo set tripping.
Any page might also harbor dried, bloody mucus smeared from one end to the other or a collection of crusty buggers reminiscent of a popcorn ceiling. This biohazard, I can only assume, comes courtesy of one of the countless mentally ill prisoners stuck in segregation for being a threat to themselves or others or to the orderly operation of the facility.
However, there are worse things than having to see ignorant declarations written throughout a book by imprisoned scribes and having to avoid contamination while reading.
When one finds several pages missing from a book it is truly infuriating. Usually, I would come across a gap in the story when two characters were embraced, kissing and undressing, then…I realize some freak has ripped out the sexual encounter that I was expecting.
I used to wish all kinds of calamities would befall prisoners whose prurient interests drove them to butcher the books to obtain material for fantasizing. Yet a missing erotic scene is nothing compared to a missing ending.
Imagine reading several hundred pages of a story, engrossed in the plot, only to find that the last chapter of the book is nowhere to be seen.
This happened to me time and again.
Once, a malicious malcontent (who was probably the culprit) got a kick out of writing a message where the last chapter should have been that said, “Bet you want to know the ending. Ha Ha! Eat a dick.”
There was nothing that I could do. I just put the book down, closed my eyes, laid back on the thin mattress, and had to endure the sounds of someone raging at the officers every hour that they passed by his cell.
With nothing to read, I would pace the floor hearing guys converse through the interconnected vents about their past exploits and future misdeeds.
With no book to occupy my mind, I would try to meditate as guys yelled back and forth arguing about something meaningless and threatening one another with violence if ever they got the opportunity for vengeance.
The constant yelling.
The rhythmic beating on a desk as someone raps to a made-up beat. Trying to sleep as someone kicks their door all night and into the morning.
It is a cacophony of madness and misery.
Then there is the fear that used to haunt me.
The fear that I would sleep too heavily and not make it to the yellow line at the front of the cell where I had to be standing to receive a meal to eat; and, consequently, I often awoke in a panic when I heard sounds that were similar to the food cart passing by, because I thought I had missed my meal and would have to go hungry.
The fear that made me refuse to go to recreation or shower sometimes because I had hidden some of my food in order to have something to eat during the 14 hours from dinner to breakfast—food that would be thrown away by officers as contraband if they conducted a cell search when I was getting fresh air or bathing.
There is no doubt that years of experiencing such things—on a daily basis—had a profound effect on my psyche, and exacerbated the damage being done from being imprisoned in my teens.
It is manifest when I live in my head for hours on end, find entertainment in my imaginings, and even laugh out loud at something that amuses me.
It is illustrated when prisoners and staff members come to see that I do not need the company of others to feel complete: I can be quiet, solitary, and not bothered in the least.
It is evidenced in that I could not continue reading Zek after the scene that troubled me, which is testament to the fact that I have been scarred by “long-term solitary confinement, a practice that most liberal democracies and human rights organizations identify as torture.”
Unfortunately, given the nature of imprisonment and my history, I have no doubt that if I remain confined there will eventually come a time when I am once again in solitary confinement. Rest assured, if that day arrives there is one thing that I will pray for.
A good book.
A book that I have not read before.
A book that is mucus and bugger free, and that is complete from the beginning to the ending.
Jeremiah Bourgeois is a regular contributor to TCR, and an inmate in Washington State, where he has been serving a life sentence since the age of 14. He welcomes comments from readers.