From Within These WallsMonday, March 17, 2014
One of the goals of the Digital Future Lab is to promote access to the digital privileges that many of us take for granted. This piece was written by Arthur Longworth, a University Beyond Bars student serving a life sentence at Monroe Correctional Complex.
By Arthur Longworth #299180, C-238
There are stories in prison that people outside don’t get to hear. Many are kept inside by the walls and fences that surround the prison, the overlapping security procedures that isolate it from society. But even those stories make it out sometimes – at least they have a chance. It’s the ones that belong to people who can’t tell them that don’t get out. Those are those are the ones I like to tell. How about one from death row?
I used to act up when I was first sent to prison. That’s why a year after I arrived here, prison administrators transferred me to death row. That’s where I met two prisoners who are unable to tell their story.
One was a black man from Tacoma named Benjamin Harris III, who made sure that I knew he was the “Third.” It was important to him for some reason. He was older – at least, quite a bit older than I was at the time, but probably not as old as I am now. And he was mentally ill.
My first day on the tier, he asked if the mafia had sent me to check up on him. It took awhile to convince him that I wasn’t connected to the mob – and if I would have been, I certainly wouldn’t have used that connection to get where I was. He apologized and told me that he had to be careful because they had framed him and gotten him sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit. He also said that he wasn’t worried because he had a team of attorneys working on the case and they would get him out.
It was that last part that tipped me off that he was crazy, that he lacked a mental foothold in reality. I mean, the mob? Who knows? Maybe. But a “team” of attorneys? Hell no.
At the time, all I had to weigh it against was my own experience with a public defender who I hardly saw or heard from before trial, and never after – an attorney who was disbarred for incompetence and dishonesty shortly after I was sent to prison – not an uncommon experience in a state that ranks 49th in the nation for funding public defense.
The second prisoner I met fed me. And I was grateful for that because I was on a disciplinary diet – which, back then, meant only a handful of inedible paste once a day. He didn’t talk at first, he just fished small packages of food from his meal trays over to my cell. That is to say, he sent them on a line fashioned from thread pulled out of his prison-tissue coveralls. It seemed like he enjoyed fishing, like it was an adventure to him. I realized when I finally coaxed him into speaking that he was simple – which is the nicest way I can think of to say retarded; slow-witted; mentally handicapped. His name was Clark.
A week after I got there, officers took him out of his cell for a shower and I was struck by how young he looked – how small in handcuffs. Not the age nor hardness of someone you’d think would be sentenced to death. When I asked him how he got the death sentence, he wouldn’t answer. So I didn’t ask again. But the question stayed with me. I knew it had to be something bad – real bad – in order for people to be mad enough to sentence a retarded person to death. I told myself that I’d look up the case if I ever made it out there.
I wasn’t surprised the night Clark killed himself. And if I were able to hand it over to you, articulate what the environment of long-term indefinite solitary confinement with no hope at the end of it is like, you wouldn’t be surprised either. But there isn’t any way to do that for those who have never been through it – other than to say, that wanting to die is not an intermittent sentiment nor a disorder. What you experience under those conditions is a natural human reaction to what is being done to you. I’m not sure why, but it’s especially difficult for young people.
I saw Clark’s face when guards removed him from his cell that night. But it isn’t the vacancy of his expression I remember most. It’s the words one guard standing over him shared with the others. He said that Clark was sentenced to death as a juvenile.
They let me out of there after that, back out into the regular prison. Nearly a decade later I heard that Benjamin Harris’ case had been overturned and that he was released from prison directly off death row. I went to the law library to look it up. In the law books I found that the case had passed through every level of state court – including the highest, that state supreme court – and at every level the death sentence was affirmed. It took a federal court to rule that Benjamin Harris’ public defender was “entirely inept and effective.” In the court’s words, the defenders trial strategy was “outrageous;” his actions leading up to it, “criminal.” How did our state courts affirm something like that?
I discovered something else in those law books. Old Benjamin Harris III wasn’t as crazy as I thought; he did have a team of lawyers working on his case. A “Dream Team” of our state’s finest attorneys; the kind of legal representation only the wealthy, politically connected, or those sentenced to death in our state are afforded.
I’ve never looked up young Clark’s case. I never will.