One day in the not-so-distant future, Americans will look back on the way we currently treat our prisoners with shame and regret. Over-incarceration abounds — particularly of African-American and Hispanic men — and rehabilitation is barely an afterthought. Drug crimes are still hugely over-represented (as of 2014, half of all prisoners sentenced to more than a year in prison were there due to the War on Drugs) and the race and class issues in our prison system are so glaringly obvious that to call them “subtext” would be insulting to the very concept of text.
One of the main reasons why America’s prison problem has been allowed to run wild for so long? Prisons are behind giant walls which do more than keep prisoners out—they prevent us from looking in. By keeping prisons outside our field of vision, and by making sure that prisoners can’t communicate with the outside world without intense scrutiny and censorship, the problems tend to recede from everyday life. “Out of sight, out of mind” is more than a cliché — for prisons, it’s practically an operating philosophy.
Arthur Longworth’s novel Zek: An American Prison Story begins with a prologue in which an unnamed prisoner finds a contraband copy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s prison novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. (It’s perhaps not too much to assume that the prologue is at least partially autobiographical; Longworth did time at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla for murder before his release in 2012.) He opens the cover and then…
Several hours later, he let the book’s cover close but continued to stare at it for some time. Any other book he would’ve 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…He set the book down slowly, almost reverentially, and rose from the bunk. He began to pace the length of the cell — two-and-a-half steps in one direction and two-and-a-half in the other. Reading the book had triggered something inside him, although he didn’t yet understand what.
Zek is a book-length homage to Solzhenitsyn’s classic novel, though you don’t need to have read Denisovich to follow the story. Now published for the first time by Seattle’s Gabalfa Press, the back cover informs us that early drafts of the book were prison system underground classics, “passed among prisoners and prison guards for over a decade.”
Simply, Zek is a day in the life of Jonny Anderson, a prisoner in the pen at Walla Walla. Jonny, a young man in his late twenties, has been in jail since he was a teenager. Like every other kid in their twenties, he’s still figuring out who he is and what he wants to do; at some point he’s going to get out of prison, and then he’ll have to figure out how to make a living in a country that hates and ignores ex-cons.
The writing in Zek is simple, straightforward. It’s not beautiful, but the bluntness of the language suits the subject matter perfectly. We see the prison through Jonny’s eyes, and the unadorned vocabulary and sentence structure matches his pragmatic worldview. From the complex social maneuvering of the overloaded shower room, where the only way you can grab a few minutes of hot water is with the help of a group of friends maneuvering around the shower in an unspoken dance of awkward eye contact, to the complex efforts to learn the individual peccadilloes of every single prison guard, Jonny’s no-nonsense observations help the reader navigate the confusing social structures of the prison.
Jonny has been inside for so long that he’s starting to forget what it’s like outside. His mother doesn’t write to him that often; she’s an aggressively superstitious Christian woman, and Jonny’s prison number — #666605 — and the prison’s address — 1313 North 13th St, Washington State Penitentiary’s real address — make her highly uncomfortable. And whenever he does talk with her, he lies to protect her emotions:
He had told her that he was in auto mechanics school, which was what he had always wanted to do. But there was no school for anything there anymore. Education inside prison had long since been gutted by state officials because, as they said, they did not believe it was right to reward people for committing crime.
Zek is a short book about an institution which is designed to create monotony, but the day in the life that Zek presents is a momentous one. It’s the day when Jonny decides his future. Will he find a way to stay out of prison, or will institutional destiny take hold, pushing him back through the doors of the prison as soon as he leaves? You’ll be repeatedly stunned by the barbarism of Zek, at the way the whole prison system works to crush the individual spirit. But if, in the middle of the story, you find Jonny’s experience too much to handle, I suggest turning back to the front of the book and reading the prologue again. It’s right there in plain English: one book can make a difference.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant