By Juan Haines
Zek: An American Prison Story (2016), by Arthur Longworth, captures the tedious and mundane, the miserable and disappointing, the irrational and vicious aspects of doing time behind bars. But it also offers keen assurance that, in spite of these highly toxic dynamics, the resilient human spirit retains the ability to hold on to a hopeful attitude. Zek, a Russian reference to a prisoner, is an authentic chronicle about incarceration.
Longworth is a state-raised novelist who entered the Washington state prison system at age 21 with little education. He is a masterful storyteller who brilliantly brings to light the universal oppression of a penal state.
Zek has been banned from Washington state prisons, according to Marc Barrington of Gabalfa Press, the book’s publisher. Prison officials claim the cover is a shot of a Washington state prison, but Barrington claims it’s not. Also, even though Barrington claim Zek is fiction, prison officials claim it presents true events. Finally, prison officials claim Zek portrays staff as compromised in some way.
From page one, readers are immersed in a world so detached from normality that its storyline seems almost too Hollywood-inspired. However, as someone who can follow what’s happening, point-by-point, I see that Longworth’s detailed fast-paced, yet mind-numbing, survival story includes every essential characteristic of prison life whether in Washington state, California and even Russia (according to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich). Close reading of Zek is a mandatory assignment for free people who want a stark reflection of the mindset of a prisoner.
In crafting Zek, Longworth raises critical questions about humanity — most fundamentally: how can we (the free person, the incarcerated, the innocent, the guilty, or the judge and jury) treat each other this way?
To these people, they were not human beings. Less than animal even. They did not pack animals into zoos like they were packed into these cell-houses. And if animals were in overcrowded conditions, they were not shot when they got into a fight.
Zek captures the reality of being a prisoner from the mindset of Zek’s protagonist, Jonny:
Jonny realized the guards had control of them down to a science.
He was conscious that there were many ways in which he had been trained like a dog since coming to prison.
Citizens who have never ventured behind bars but are nonetheless concerned about the criminal justice system may find Zek a fatiguing read. However, it is important to read on to the book’s end. Knowing that boredom is the curse of civilization arouses our understanding that humanity only thrives and progresses by constantly accepting new ideas about what a good society looks like. A universal truth; we all want better for the next generation.
You can’t lose hope, Jonny said. Sometimes things in here seem bad, but there’s always hope it can get better. You don’t know what’s going to happen. Twenty years from now we might have a governor who will give you clemency. You can’t lose sight of that. It’s how to get through this. Some days are worse than others, but no matter how bad it gets, as long as you remember there’s hope, you can get through it.
Longworth exposes many of the systemic complications embedded in the penal state, such as its structural/institutional racism and that its criminogenic effect on the incarcerated ensures a high recidivism rate with those returning to prison for an increasingly more serious and violent crime.