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Life Inside

What It’s Like to Be Moved From Cell to Cell, Prison to Prison

An endless shuffle takes a toll.

This article was published in collaboration with Vice.

I'm moving cells today. A guard issued the order at 6:30 a.m. this morning during rack-out, when the cell doors first open for the day. He read my name and prisoner number off a list. Soon I was piling all my books — my dictionary, my thesaurus, my Illustrated “Birds of North America” — and all my belongings into a cart outside my cell.

I'm conscious of a not-unfamiliar physical sensation, like a piece of me is being torn away. I try to push the feeling aside and keep myself moving, moving around my familiar 6-foot by 8-foot space.

I put a pile of books into the cart. Then my plastic clip-on lamp, my small fan, my small bronze Buddha, which has sat at my side for more than 25 years, and my small bell, given to me by a prisoner 16 years ago, the day before he died.

I have to move; there's no choice. Guards wouldn't tolerate it if I refused nor would they exercise patience if I merely went about the process slowly.

It’s almost ironic: Even though 1 in 5 prisoners in this state are sentenced to a term they won’t live to see the end of, they are always moving around. There are always prisoners being buoyed around, from cell to cell, from prison to prison, on the tide of administrative whim.

Yet I've managed to spend five years in this cell — the longest stretch I've spent in any cell over the course of the three decades I've been in prison. Maybe that's why the ripping feeling is so strong this time.

Now I’m loading up my pictures. Here’s one of the former warden and his wife, who have visited me over the years, welcomed me into their family, and spoken out for my release.

There is so little solidity in prison, so little to depend on, that a picture like this — or a cell that’s mine, that’s home, that I can always return to — is a treasure.

Part of the dread lies in where I’m headed: The oldest cellhouse in the prison, where I’ve already lived for a year and a half back in 1999. A four-story mausoleum of weathered red brick and eroded mortar. The place feels haunted, even when all the lights are on. The arched windows were bricked-up a quarter of a century ago, and the corrugated steel sheeting on the ceiling has rusted. The water that dribbles in when it rains is the color of tea.

Countless convict shoes and guard boots have worn paths into the concrete cellhouse floor. The slabs down the central corridors have settled in such a way that they slant upward, which is fortunate, because whenever the building's plumbing gives out, the floor acts as a gully, channeling water away from the cells.

The cellhouse is split into a pair of antiquated cellblocks four tiers high. The cell walls are crumbling from age and moisture, and they’re patched in many places. The only reason a wall hasn't fallen completely is because they are a foot thick.

It’s freezing in the winter, causing friction between guards and prisoners. Guards work their shifts in heavy coats while enforcing rules that prevent prisoners from possessing an extra blanket.

There are prisoners so old and infirm they rarely leave their cells. They can't make it down the stairs to the chowhall, so younger prisoners bring food to them.

This is the cellhouse where a prisoner was in a bunk for two days before guards discovered that he was deceased, with days worth of unopened mail piled on his chest.

This morning, as I was packing, a guard told me I’m moving to cell #224. I know the prisoner I'm trading cells with — my friend, Wade, who has a 63-year sentence.

No one sent here when they're young makes it that long; the living conditions are too poor, the health services too lacking, the mental deprivation too total, and the temptation of suicide too real for us to survive into old age. Young prisoners won't ever have to bring food to Wade's cell, or mine.

I understand what the ripping feeling is now. It's prison taking my life. Because that's what incarceration does. It tears life away in pieces.

As I load the last of my possessions into the cart, I'm conscious of how long I've been inside these walls. I wonder how many pieces I have left before there's nothing left to rip.

Arthur Longworth is a 51-year-old inmate at Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe, Wash. He is serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for an aggravated murder he committed when he was 20.