By: Arthur Longworth, Contributing Writer

Courtesy of Arthur Longworth

In prison, it’s not necessary for you to be a racist in order for you to act like one, to live within the confines of a strict racial divide, to discriminate. These are things you have to do in here, because the race barriers are institutionalized, embedded so deeply into the way the prison is managed, that it’s impossible for me to envisage a way in which it could be run without them.

Racism among prisoners has its own rules, distinct from the ones you may be familiar with in the free world. They are rules that have been handed down over a long period of time – through many generations of convicts and prison staff. All of your interactions with others are based on them.

And I’m not saying anything is wrong with this, either, or that I have a problem with it. Truthfully, I do not know any other way to live.

Perhaps you are surprised by this. But that is because you are outside, insulated and safe in the free world. You don’t have to live like we do here, confined and pressed in together. It might even be easy for you to look down on us or to think that things could or should be different. Let me assure you, that wouldn’t be a practical application.

In prison, each race maintains itself separately, with clear lines of division running between each. Some races are closer than others, having developed alliances, but they still remain separate, the ties between them subject to dissolution or change at any time.

One of the main areas of separation are cell assignments – cells being assigned according to race. On the roster in each cell house sergeant’s office, cells are tagged “Black,” “White,” “Asian,” “Hispanic,” etc. – and not because prison administrators want to segregate us that way. (We’re all prisoners in their eyes and I’m certain they would prefer it if they were able to stuff us away in whatever cell they wanted, whichever had openings, regardless of race.) We’re segregated because we, as prisoners, demand it, and the administration finds it easier to give in to us than not, at least in this one area.

I won’t live with a prisoner of another race and I’ve often wondered if this qualifies me as being a racist by free world standards. Yet, even if I were to be labeled as such, I don’t believe it would be accurate, because I do not harbor or foster any of the feelings of superiority that accompany free world racism. I won’t live with other races simply because that is how it is in here, for reasons obvious to anyone who has done time behind these walls when the ever-present demon of racial tension erupts into violence.

The shower room in each cell house is divided into territories as well, each race having claim to a small number of jealously guarded shower heads. It’s an area of frequent discord. When the numbers of any racial group go down, others inevitably begin to eye their shower heads longingly – some ambitiously, the way a bully in school eyes a smaller student, recognizing vulnerability. “They shouldn’t have three shower heads. There aren’t nearly as many of them as there are of us.” The diminished race group does everything it can to hold onto their showers, knowing that if they lose one, they’ll likely never get it back.

And no one seems to recognize the real problem here (or they choose to simply ignore it because doing anything about it seems so far beyond their control) – that prison guards are running 400 men through a small shower room with only 12 shower heads within a 20-minute time period.

In the chowhall, each race sits only with its own kind. Until recently, each race had its own section, laying claim over an entire group of tables. But not long ago, the warden ordered the introduction of a new seating system. Now we must fill the tables a row at a time, in the same order that we file into the chowhall. Individual races are no longer able to claim entire sections. Still, each race manages to sit at its own tables. There is no mixing.

In the Big Yard, certain areas are favored by certain races, although these are more malleable than anything else laid claim to in the prison. It’s possible for the same area of the yard to belong to one race one day and another the next.

Work areas are also commonly divided. Each department (the Kitchen, for example) employs all races, but individual work areas and crews are usually allowed to keep themselves separate (the pots and pans tank – Black; the dish pit – White; the vegetable room – Hispanic, etc.).

There are some individuals who are the exceptions, although not as many as you would think. Prisoners who have assimilated into racial groups other than their own are no longer recognized by either the guards or their fellow prisoners as being members of the race they were born into. Examples of this might be a Caucasian prisoner who joins a Black or Hispanic gang, or a homosexual who has become the “property” of another race.

Encroachment on or violation of any of the established rules or areas of racial separation, when serious enough, are interpreted as disrespect – disrespect of one race by another. When this happens, it is usually confronted and dealt with immediately; disrespect between races is one of the things in here that can spin out of control faster than anything else, leading to all-out open warfare between races.

In confrontations between races, it is an unforgivable transgression for a prisoner to stand idly by or attempt to remove himself from a situation in which his racial group is involved – one that even a veteran convict will not be excused for. Race is a rallying point in prison, a unifying link that prisoners are obliged to line up behind unquestioningly in the face of discord, and fight for unhesitatingly whenever called upon to do so. A prisoner who fails to do this would have a difficult time surviving the reprisal. Even if he manages to, he would certainly never again be respected (if, indeed, he ever was).

This particular issue is really of no concern to me, because I do fight alongside others of my own race when necessary. I do it because that’s what is expected of me, because others in my racial group would be more vulnerable, life more difficult for them than it already is, if I didn’t.

And again I find myself wondering if this makes me a racist – by free world standards.

Sometimes racial incidents take place in here that make me angry, that I believe cross a line: intentional disrespect of another race. A cell full of young white prisoners getting drunk and yelling “Nigger” out into the cellblock late at night. Or two young Blacks jumping a White because he is somewhere alone. Young guys acting as though what they are doing will have no repercussions, or simply not caring. Most often they are prisoners who haven’t been in for long, ones who have never had to go out to the Big Yard and fight another race, never been in a race riot.

Sometimes it’s possible to work things like this out to the satisfaction of both races without resorting to all-out warfare – if the perpetrators can be dealt with in such a way that satisfies the other side and ensures that the offenders will be more careful with their actions in the future. When possible, racial conflict is managed this way and I believe that is fortunate. When I have to fight, I want it to be for something I believe in. And when I do it in conjunction with others, I want it to be because we’re right. I don’t think I’m being unreasonable in this. Conflict shouldn’t escalate into warfare because an ignorant young prisoner infected with free world racism committed an intentionally disrespectful act – and that’s a sentiment, I suspect, that is shared by all reasonable convicts, regardless of race.

I don’t think a free world racist, acting the same way he does outside of prison, would make it in here. Not if he were to go out to the Big Yard and spew his hate, use the same words in here that come so easily to him outside. That isn’t usually how it works, though. When a free world racist comes in as a prisoner, they stay pretty quiet. When they look around, I don’t think they like the odds.

Racial disrespect also comes from guards and other prison staff and it’s more common than disrespect between prisoners. Unfortunately, it’s also more accepted by prisoners because we’re powerless to do anything about it. Bite your tongue and move on.

It isn’t always direct, either. I couldn’t even count the number of times guards of my own race have, in my presence, spoken demeaningly about prisoners of other races – as though sharing a confidence, a common bond, feigning as if they don’t regard me equally as low (at least, in this one sense). I can’t help but feel disbelief – in thinking back on all of my years in prison, on all that I have been through here. Do they not know? Do they not know that I have infinitely more in common with those prisoners, those other races, than I ever will with them?

In this state, Black guards have filed lawsuits against the DOC

[Department of Corrections] in recent years because of the racism they face in their workplace – claiming that cliques of guards who belong to racist organizations and neo-Nazi gangs (that the DOC allows to operate inside of its prisons) use threats, intimidation, and assaults against them. It should, I would think, bring one naturally to a question. “If Washington prisons provide such a hostile, discriminatory work environment for guards, what is it like to be a prisoner in one?” I’ve never heard it asked, though.

The racism I see guards bring into the prison is different than that between prisoners, and only rarely have I seen them have anything to do with each other. This is because, for a guard, race is always trumped by the guard/prisoner barrier. In their eyes, the only thing worse than someone of a race lower than theirs is a prisoner – lower races being not entirely human, prisoners being something lower than that.

As a white prisoner, I don’t believe I’ve ever received slack from white guards or administrators because of my race. And I’ve seen the same thing between guards and prisoners of other races – sometimes even intensified, as though the guards are trying to prove to other guards that they are worthy of respect, of being dealt with as equals, because of how bad they are willing to treat prisoners of their own race, even in extreme forms of abuse.

It is no different with the guards who have sued over the discrimination they themselves have suffered. I’ve seen them return to work, the money from their settlements stuffed into their bank accounts, puffed up in their newfound, sense of vindication, only to treat their incarcerated racial brethren worse – much worse —than they have ever been treated themselves.

There is a difference between free world racism and the race divisions in prison among prisoners.

Free world racism is looking down on others, putting yourself above them inside your head, and treating

them in accordance with what you’ve told yourself about them. Hating someone merely because you

believe yourself to be better than they are. That is free world racism and it epitomizes the relationship between guard and prisoner as well.

Race discrimination between prisoners, however, is different. It’s looking across from each other. In many cases, there is still hate there, but it’s more concrete and personal because there are reasons to hate. The racial divisions we have in here are there because they always have been, an inherent part of the institution, necessary to the way it is run. Living within racial lines, we are able to keep the peace most of the time.

There are times, though, when even racial differences are transcended in prison. I’ve seen it. Felt it myself. White convicts surrounding guards beating a Mexican prisoner, ignoring orders to disperse – ignoring, but entirely conscious of, the rifle aimed down at them. Black prisoners rioting in their cells because of something the guards did to two White prisoners. And all of us sitting down in the Big Yard together, refusing to come inside, feeling beat down, without hope, deciding collectively that we have had enough.

That is when you feel the underlying connection of all mankind, the absence of any racial division, the common ground of humanity, mortality. When you’re beaten. Truly, when you feel like there is nothing left for you to do but die, it’s hard to hate or see any difference in the man next to you who you know – despite his color – is wearing the same goddamn shoes you are.


Arthur Longworth is serving LIFE in Washington state for 1st Degree murder. The clemency board denied his clemency petition in 2012. 


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Monroe Correctional Facility (WSR)

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