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Originally published April 15, 2012 at 8:00 PM | Page modified April 16, 2012 at 2:45 PM

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Writer's world: life behind bars

Arthur Longworth was convicted of a 1985 murder and sentenced to life in prison. Since then, he's won national literary awards for his descriptions of life behind bars.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Seattle Times collaborated with KUOW on this report. To listen to KUOW's story on how some prisoners are handling life without parole, tune in to 94.9 FM on Monday or go to kuow.org.

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MONROE — The inmate hasn't spoken in months, or had anyone to speak to. Except for the ants.

A line of red ants crawls out of a crevice in the prison-cell wall. They snatch a bread crumb the inmate left for them, and disappear. The inmate smiles.

Around him are rants of insane inmates, the sound of batons smacking against flesh, the stench of feces. He admires the ants' focus, that they are "able to survive regardless of circumstance."

The inmate in "Walla Walla IMU," a short story about an inmate losing his will to live in an isolation cell, is unnamed. But the writer, Arthur Longworth, DOC #299180, has spent what has amounted to years in "The Hole."

Convicted of aggravated murder, Longworth was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole — "broke off," in prison lingo — at age 21.

Near the age of 40, he finally decided how to make use of his time. He began to write. And write. And write.

His first work — a 57,000-word day-in-the-life novel titled "Day 3,652" — exists only as a dog-eared manuscript and is still secretly passed like gossip among inmates.

Now 47, he has won two national literary awards for subsequent work, including a 2010 prize for the best prison memoir, from the PEN Center in New York. Pulitzer-winning novelist Junot Diaz read Longworth's story about the ants on stage in New York. College students from Texas to Washington are assigned his works.

His stories, most nonfiction, are spare and unsentimental descriptions of prison life. A "duck" is a new inmate, a "rapo" is a target, the "freeworld" is a dream best kept at bay. Guards are cruel, but also kind. The arrival of ospreys or starlings in the prison yard prompts reflection on generational crime.

He often infuses his writing with a slow boil of outrage, particularly about life-without-parole sentences for young inmates. His fans, often on the political left, see Longworth as a truth-teller about the jailing of America.

Longworth, a seventh-grade dropout, describes his writing as he does the ants: an effort to survive in an unforgiving environment. "It feels like a victory in some ways, because I'm not supposed to be able to do this."

Convicted of murder

On Feb. 15, 1985, Cynthia Nelson left her job at Thousand Trails in Bellevue to meet a young man interested in hearing more about Amway, which she sold on the side. She was excited, her co-workers said. She was 25.

The next morning, a jogger spotted her body in Little Pilchuck Creek. She'd been killed by a deep stab wound to the back.

It was not a who-done-it. Nelson's calendar noted the meeting with "Art Longworth," who had previously worked with her as a temp. A scrap of paper in her purse noted his address in Wallingford, and Nelson's car — with Longworth's fingerprints inside — was near his apartment. Witnesses who saw a man near Little Pilchuck Creek near the time of Nelson's death picked Longworth out of a photo lineup.

"She was killed for no reason at all," said former Snohomish County Sheriff Rick Bart, who investigated the case as a detective. "Coldblooded murder, and left to lay in a creek across from a Little League field. He didn't care."

Longworth was 20, living on the streets or in jail since he was kicked out of a state-run group home at 16. The state took custody of Longworth and his sister while they were in elementary school.

His sister, Dawn Enz, said their parents starved and abused them. She said she was forced to sleep naked in a small bathroom with the window left open, as was her brother.

"I learned very young to curl up in a ball, real tight, to stay warm," said Enz, recently retired after 20 years in the Air Force. "It was more a story of survival than one of living."

Enz was taken in by a foster family, but Longworth pinballed through the juvenile justice system. He said he learned to steal to eat, accruing juvenile theft and burglary charges. Although he did not attend school regularly after seventh grade, he earned a GED diploma at 16.

He was on probation for a robbery conviction when he was arrested for Nelson's murder. A Snohomish County jury in March 1986 convicted Longworth of aggravated first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory life-without-parole sentence.

"I am responsible for the death of an innocent person, that is why I am here. And it eats at me," he wrote in "The Prison Diary," a volume of essays.

"What bothers me is that I don't feel like I've ever been able to pay anything back, in any way make up for the crime I as an ignorant young person committed — no matter what happens in here, no matter how bad or intolerable it gets, prison has never made me feel like I am doing that."

Nelson's parents died a few years after their daughter's death, an aunt said last week. She said she did not want her comments about Longworth included in this story.

Charting a new path

In his first decade as a lifer, Longworth racked up an astonishing disciplinary record: 92 serious infractions and 13 stints in solitary confinement, for behavior that included fighting, having an "explosive device" in his cell and throwing urine on a guard. His prison file, obtained under a public disclosure request, is 4,791 pages thick.

Longworth estimates he's spent, cumulatively, several years in solitary confinement. Mentally ill inmates often ended up in adjoining cells, he once wrote. "Weak minds break quickly. Stronger ones, later on."

Longworth realized he needed to do his time differently, and he met a nurse, Kriss Reino, through another inmate. She said she was reluctant until he sent a letter. They married in 1994. She visits him regularly, including for quarterly conjugal visits.

"People just don't understand it has nothing to do with him being in prison," she said. "When you love someone, you love them."

Longworth became a Buddhist, and learned Mandarin and Spanish. He is fluent enough in Spanish that he leads a class in Monroe's University Beyond Bars, a nonprofit group that offers college-level courses to inmates. He's had one serious infraction in the past decade, in 2009, for giving another inmate a spare TV.

He had an epiphany reading Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago," an underground account of life in Soviet concentration camps. They were the first prison stories that rang true for Longworth. Nearing middle age, he knew he had a choice.

He could, as he said in an interview, "just be quiet, shut up, go to my cell and die there."

He saw another path: "If I stayed in prison all this time and didn't reform myself in any way, I would think that would be disappointing for (Nelson). I'd like to work towards being the type of person that might be able to bring some peace for her."

He wakes at around 5 a.m., before most other inmates, and fills notebooks in neat longhand. He lives alone now, but wrote even when crammed in with three others.

He mailed his first work — a book-length day-in-the-life account, written in about 2004, that was critical of a prison official — to his wife. It was intercepted by the prison. Longworth was soon accused of trying to start a prison gang. The charge wasn't upheld; Longworth wasn't cited for an infraction. But he spent two months in solitary, which he believes was retaliatory.

Peter Sussman, a former San Francisco Chronicle editor who co-wrote a book with a prison writer, said it wouldn't be surprising. "It is fairly common for them to face repercussions if they speak truth to power," Sussman said.

Longworth's writing, both fiction and nonfiction, often focuses on the 70 inmates — including himself — who received life-without-parole sentences at the age of 21 or younger. "The reality of the sentence is that you are dead — and that is how you are regarded by the state. Prison is merely the place that they have sent you in order to wait for it to happen," Longworth wrote.

"The Prison Diary," the only work he's had published, is a slim booklet produced in 2008 by a vanity press in Oregon. He makes no money from his writing, but it has drawn notice.

"I routinely hear people say it is the most powerful thing they've read in grad school," said Miguel Ferguson, a University of Texas social-work professor, of a Longworth story he assigns in his classes.

Bob Kastama, a retired superintendent at the state penitentiary in Walla Walla, decided to meet Longworth after reading one of his stories. He was leery that Longworth might be a "con artist, a sociopath, a psychopath."

"After three or four visits, I think he's as sincere as I am," Kastama said. "I think Art Longworth is a voice that needs to be heard."

Plea for clemency

Last January, Longworth had just left the Monroe prison chapel, where he worked, when another lifer, Byron Scherf, attacked corrections officer Jayme Biendl and strangled her.

In the lockdown afterward, the chapel's Buddhist garden, tended by Longworth and other inmates, became overgrown, and a tough little stray cat that Biendl fed with scraps from her lunch disappeared, Longworth wrote in the Northwest Dharma News, a Buddhist newsletter.

"We understand that referring to all of us inside these walls as bad people may help the governor and others make sense of what happened here. And if that is the case, we invite them to continue to do so," Longworth wrote.

"We believe in the ability of human beings to change for the better by working with their minds to cultivate compassion and penetrate ignorance."

In January, Longworth, with the help of supporters, submitted a clemency petition to Gov. Chris Gregoire. The petition focuses on Longworth's youth at the time of conviction, his chaotic childhood and his efforts at reformation through his writing. Letters from two state lawmakers, including Kastama's son, state Sen. Jim Kastama, were attached.

Clemency is an extreme longshot. Gregoire rarely uses her power to pardon, especially for a violent crime.

Nelson's aunt said her family would oppose the petition.

Longworth said he expects to die in prison. He'd rather think about helping the "ducks" adjust to the life he's known for the past 26 years.

"After living so long here I'm conscious that prison is punishment only because of what I see on the faces of those not yet accustomed to it," he wrote.

"Watching the newly arrived, it's obvious that what they find in here isn't what they are used to, not what is considered normal outside these walls ... . Their reaction infuses itself on their faces, a dawning look of horror; realization that they now have to live like this, will have to find a way to do it ... or knot a sheet around their neck. They don't know the half of it yet."

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @jmartin206.

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