Behind Bars, Raging Against the System Can Be Therapeutic

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Arthur Longworth

Award-winning prison author Arthur Longworth has inspired other incarcerated individuals like TCR columnist Jeremiah Bourgeois to channel their anger in productive ways. Photo by Katherin Hervey

Savvy prison systems such as the Washington Department of Corrections (WDOC) tout dog training programs, sustainability projects, and yoga classes to market their humane and rehabilitative environments to members of the public who are curious enough to want to know what is occurring inside of them.

Yet behind the window dressing, there remains “a trace of ‘torture in the modern mechanisms of criminal justice,” and it is “enveloped increasingly by the non-corporal nature of the penal system.”

Those are the words of Michael Foucault, and they apply to the institution where I am serving a life sentence, as well as to most others.

Those who are confined must endure, according to Foucault:

…physical and sexual deprivation; undernourishment; limited access to healthcare and hygiene; the pervasive odor of urine, disinfectant, and stale food; the noxious and threatening proximity of other bodies; the claustrophobic pressure of confinement and crowding; and the endemic hazard of physical violence, whether by guards or by other inmates.

That’s one reason tension between guards and inmates is all too common in correctional settings.

However, I have learned that it is prudent to cloak my anger and hostility. Being perceived by one’s keepers as a malcontent can result in reprisals, especially in minimum custody facilities where the perception amongst staff is that prisoners—who have the luxury of living in less repressive settings—have too much to lose to react violently when treated unjustly.

Emboldened by this belief, many guards will not hesitate to pluck a seemingly hostile prisoner out of a crowd and pat-search them aggressively.

They will frequently search these prisoners’ cells under pretexts and leave them in shambles.

They will confiscate their property illegitimately and claim it violates policy.

Staff will delay or “lose” paperwork that requires approval for prisoners to obtain jobs, schooling, and transfers to work release.

Such examples illustrate why I don a mask of equanimity. Yet for some prisoners, becoming a sphinx does not inoculate against capriciousness. Those who use writing as a means for venting their discontent and have the nerve to let those views be published can face repercussions.

Case in point: Arthur Longworth, an award‑winning author whose portraits of WDOC have incensed many correctional officials and turned them into petty tyrants when dealing with him.

After having his drafts seized by mailroom staff, getting banned by administrators from participating in volunteer programs, and being dogged by investigators trying to determine whether he profited from publication of Zek: An American Prison Story, Longworth was left to muse in an interview:

To be honest, I don’t understand what bothers them about my writing or why they go to such extremes to punish me for what I’ve written, as well as do all they can to prevent me from writing more. When I look at my writing, it seems to be merely an attempt to convey the experiences of long-term prisoners.

What Arthur Longworth’s experience manifests is that the retributive ethos is omnipresent within the correctional system.

He wrote that prison staff—no less than members of the public—often find “the notion repugnant that convicted murderers, rapists, robbers—subhuman persons—could thrive in a place that should serve as their demise.”

To such minds, we were confined solely to be punished; we have no business complaining as if we are suffering injustices.

To be honest, I despise those who hold such sentiments. Indeed, Nietzsche would also be revolted by those who hold such views, a feeling “actuated less by pity for the suffering of those punished than by the disgust with those who rationalize that suffering….”

Regardless, to those who believe prisoners are working off a debt to society and, by reason of this, are unfit to feel anger that is righteous, Arthur Longworth’s writings are heresy and he fully deserves the backlash he engenders from administrators within WDOC.

There is an irony to this.

In writing about the true nature of imprisonment, as opposed to lashing out due to their predicament, prisoners are employing the very methods that correctional systems force-feed them through cognitive behavior therapy (CBT).

For those unfamiliar with this treatment, the core premise of CBT is simple, according to an article in the National Institute of Justice Journal:

The way we think about situations shapes our choices, behavior and actions. If flawed or maladaptive thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs lead to inappropriate and even destructive behavior, then changing thoughts, attitudes and beliefs can lead to more appropriate, pro-social behavior.

Instead, the object of the Stress & Anger Management CBT program within WDOC is to help “offenders recognize their angry feelings, learn their causes, and deal with them in a new way—a responsible way—probably not the way they learned to deal with them in the past,” according to the aptly titled Cage Your Rage workbook.

Consequently, prisoners are given some of the following instructions for responsibly managing their stress and anger:

  •  Don’t keep angry feelings bottled up inside. They will only cause you problems and pain.
  • You know that built-up anger only makes a situation worse—worse for yourself and worse for others.
  • If we don’t deal with our feelings of anger, they only lead to aggression.

In fact, caging one’s rage “doesn’t mean you should get rid of all your anger [because] anger does have some good uses,” according to the Cage Your Rage script.

From this perspective, Arthur Longworth is a CBT success.

Every time that he manages his anger and stress by weaponizing his pen rather than beating and slashing his keepers, he proves that anger can indeed be put to good use.

As a twist, the final lesson from CBT appears to be that taking to heart the rehabilitative programing provided by WDOC can actually lead to ruin, and, confirms Durkheim’s view that “the essence of punishment is irrational, unthinking emotion fixed by a sense of the sacred and its violation.”

In the end, the pen becomes a blade for a prisoner to perform Seppuku.

In a 2017 article in the Punishment & Society journal, Prof. Steve Herbert recognizes that prisoners such as Longworth who are serving life sentences “exemplify and enact the human capacities for connection, generosity, resilience, and atonement; for these and other reasons, their experiences deserve greater consideration and discussions of punishment policy.”

Jeremiah Bourgois

Jeremiah Bourgeois

He is right in this.

As author Joe Lockard writes, “one of the strongest forces against mass incarceration is the voice of prisoners themselves.”

Accordingly, I hope Arthur Longworth remains committed to being a voice for the mass incarcerated through sharing his perspective.

Let him continue to follow Psalm 4:4— “Be angry, and do not sin.”

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 is currently petitioning for release from the Stafford Creek Corrections Center. Readers who wish to support him are invited to sign up here.

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