Washington Prisons
6:27 am
Tue April 17, 2012

Time Served: Do Prison Lifers Deserve Another Chance?

During Washington’s recent legislative session, lawmakers briefly considered a bill to bring back parole for prisoners. The measure failed to move out of committee. But supporters already plan to try again next year.

The sentence of ‘life without the possibility of parole’ is steadily on the rise in U.S. prisons. Here In Washington, nearly 600 prisoners are currently serving ‘life without’. Most of them will grow old and die behind bars. It’s a prospect that’s tough to fathom.

In this collaboration with the Seattle Times, we take a look at how some ‘lifers’ come to grips with this reality….and how they search for meaning in a situation most people see as hopeless. KUOW’s Liz Jones has our story from Monroe prison.

Rows of desks, chalkboards, a big round clock on the wall. It looks almost like any other classroom. And it’s almost enough to make some students here forget, just briefly, about the concrete borders beyond this room.

Longworth: “¿Brian, que dice la pregunta? Díganos por favor. What does the question say?”

The person leading this Spanish class is an inmate. He’s sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Same as a few others in this makeshift classroom at Monroe prison.

Longworth: “David.”

David: “Los hijos de mis tias es…son…”

Longworth: “Son mis primos. ¡Excelente! Good job, David.”

This class is part of a college program called University Beyond Bars, or UBB. It started here about six years ago with a single class and a handful of students. Now, about 140 inmates attend a range of classes, from yoga to advanced math.

UBB is among just a few prison programs in the country that offer a college degree. And what’s surprising at Monroe is that some of the most active students are the lifers – guys who will probably never leave prison or have any need for a college diploma.

I recently met with some inmates in the program. They talk about how UBB is more than just a way to get from one day to the next. They call it therapy. They’re a close-knit community. And that combined, ultimately helps them reconcile with their future here.

And coming to terms with that future -- a lifetime in prison -- is an ongoing battle.

“Sometimes I wake up and the first thing that pops in my mind is, damn, it’s been six years," says Malcolm Jackson. "You know, I look at my pictures of my baby sister and I’m like, man. It just kills me. I know it kills everybody, being down for all these years.”

“It’s my personal experience that after 20 years - it might be hard to imagine this - but everything outside that wall is like a dream; a memory you don’t really even remember too good,” adds Art Longworth.

“I’m going to make it day by day," says Orlando Ames. "You might go draw. You might go work out. I might go read a book. I might just call home or write a letter. I do all these things because it’s what keeps me moving. As long as my mind is moving and my mind remains free, there’s not a cage in the world that can hold me.”

Those are the voices Malcolm Jackson, Art Longworth and Orlando Ames.

Jackson has a 30-year sentence; the other two have life without parole.

It can’t be forgotten that these men are here because they’re convicted of serious crimes.

“It is the worst of the worst,” says Rick Bart, former Sheriff of Snohomish County. “Life without parole means what you did is so bad, so horrible, we can’t let you out.”

Sheriff Bart retired five years ago after a long career in law enforcement, working homicides and major crimes. He applauds prisoner rehabilitation programs, like UBB. But he includes a word of caution.

Bart: “There’s no amount of rehab you can do for some people that’s going to work – it just depends on the person. If they’ve got a good family support system, yeah, I think it’s possible. But depends who they are, what they’ve done and if they want to rehab.”

This question about the ability to change is exactly what motivated Carol Estes to start the University Beyond Bars program in the first place.

“I love the sort of revolutionary aspect of taking people who are not supposed to succeed -- we’ve already written them off -- and opening the door for them,” she says.

To keep her program running, Estes has waded through prison politics and forged difficult alliances. She’s even taken out a second mortgage on her home … without telling her husband. Eventually she told him.

It all takes a toll. But Estes says her visits to the prison renew her faith in this effort.

“It’s like being a gardener," she says. "You get to watch people flower and watch them realize the possibilities out there that were never there in their narrow upbringing. Upbringings that are just astonishing. You wonder how anybody survived them.”

One prisoner, Estes, believes has turned his life around is Art Longworth. He taught himself Spanish in prison, after sending away for books.

Longworth has since become a writer. A few magazines have published his essays. And he recently won two prestigious PEN awards for prison writing. He started writing just a few years ago, after two decades in prison.

“So much had built up inside of me that it just burst out and it burst out through the tip of my pen," Longworth says. "I’m really glad it happened. But it was an accident. It wasn’t something I planned. It just started spilling out.”

Longworth writes about what he knows: Prison. His essay topics jump from bird-watching in the big yard to being led on a dog-leash to spend time in the hole. In a recent essay, he talks about Corrections Officer Jayme Biendl. She was killed last year, at the hands of an inmate.

He describes a feral cat he and Officer Biendl both kept tabs on.

Biendl: “Ms. B. began to take bits of food out to leave for the cat. The food was from her own lunch. And whenever she left it, she always directed kind and encouraging words toward the cat. Once she even called to the cat and tried to entice her to come closer - an idea that because of the cat’s obvious feral nature, did not strike me as a particularly good one at the time. But it was in her interaction with the cat, and her humane treatment of us, that I realized I was most able to clearly able to see the different between a guard and a corrections officer. Our hearts are broken and we miss her. ”

Longworth describes his early childhood as a nightmare…in and out of foster care and juvenile homes. He'd run away, and run around with other criminals. The crimes eventually turned serious.

Longworth is in prison for aggravated murder. He was 20 years old when he robbed, then stabbed to death a young woman named Cynthia Nelson. Nelson’s family declined a recorded interview for this story. But they say they’ll never forgive Longworth. He wasted a beautiful, young life.

Former Sheriff Rick Bart, who we heard earlier, was the sheriff’s detective on this murder case back in the mid-80s. He clearly remembers how this murder devastated Cynthia Nelson’s family.

“They couldn’t believe and they kept asking, ‘why, why, why.’ There were circumstances around this case that are just horrible," Bart recalls. "Aggravated means just that. It was really bad – aggravated.”

“It’s a horror and, uh, yeah, I don’t forgive myself for it,” Longworth says.

For Longworth, writing is a form of therapy. He also describes it part of an obligation to his crime victim -- to try to become a better person.

Longworth: “I’ve always strived to find a way to pay back. What’s most powerful for me is – and this might be a delusion – but I think about what would the victim of my crime want me to do? Would the victim of my crime just want me to sit here? Would it be payment enough to just to live my whole life here and die?”

Longworth’s early prison records reveal a lot of bad behavior. But that’s mostly in the distant past. While in prison, he’s gotten married and become a father. He says his family – plus the writing and college program – help keep him on track.

Longworth’s efforts to change and try to redeem himself have caught other’s attention. Recently, an attorney took up his case for free. She filed a clemency petition, to ask for a reduced sentence. It includes letters of support from a state senator and a former prison warden.

But his case is a real long shot – only a handful of lifers have ever been granted clemency in Washington. If Longworth were released, Cynthia Nelson’s family says they’d fear for their lives. They want him to stay locked up.

Former Sheriff Rick Bart is on their side.

Bart: “Why subject a family to a second set of worries and concerns, if they’re going to let him out? And they would. Maybe Art’s not going to do anything. But they’re always going to be in the back of their head – Art’s out, Art’s out. ”

Longworth’s clemency hearing is set for September.

Meanwhile, Carol Estes, with the University Beyond Bars program, thinks more prisoners -- including lifers -- deserve a shot at early release. She helped spearhead a legislative bill this year that aimed to essentially put parole back on the books in Washington.

Under that proposal, offenders who’d served at least 20 years would be eligible to go before a sentence review board.

“It’s important to remember that parole doesn’t mean freedom," Estes says. "it means a chance to make your case. It’s just that option and believing there are people who can change, and that the prison has programs that do sometimes result in change.”

The parole bill never got a vote. But it did prompt some lawmakers to request further analysis and study on the issue.

For his part, Longworth never expected anybody would want to take up his case for another look. He says he’ll never forgive himself for killing Cynthia Nelson. He understands why others would feel the same.

“All’s I’d asked for is, look, this is what I was. This is who I was. This is who I am now. This is what you sentenced me to. Do you still believe in that?”

Meanwhile, Longworth serves his time, one day to the next. He wakes up every morning, in his concrete cell, at dawn. And he picks up his pencil and he writes.

Copyright 2012 KUOW