Behind the Walls

By Marc Barrington, Writing Instructor at Monroe Correctional Complex and Publisher of Zek: An American Prison Story

I started Gabalfa Press in 2014. Gabalfa is the name of the council housing estate where my mum grew up in Wales—think “the projects” but with a Welsh accent. In Welsh, Gabalfa translates into “place to meet the ferry”, as it was once a crossing point over the river Taff. I like to think Gabalfa is a fitting name because, just as ferries transport passengers, books transport readers.

And it is especially fitting of our first title by five-time PEN award winning writer, Arthur Longworth. For Art’s book, Zek: An American Prison Story, truly transports its readers. Zek takes its readers behind the walls of an eastern Washington state prison in Walla Walla. And it’s there that readers spend one harrowing day with the central protagonist, Jonny, as he navigates 21st century prison life.

Zek is the result of a chance encounter, if such things are possible in prison. It was my first semester volunteer-teaching a preparatory college English class at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe. Art was my TA. And I was lucky to have him. Lucky because Art exudes a calm and a light I found helpful as I acclimated to teaching on the “inside”. And lucky because Art helped me understand some of the social dynamics at play in my classroom to which I wouldn’t have otherwise have been attuned.

Many mornings before my students arrived, Art and I would discuss books. Art is a reader after my own heart, and we share a number of the same favorites. Even where our tastes differ, though, I always took note of what Art had to say because I was assured a careful, thoughtful response. And so it came to pass. At one point Art volunteered, “I’ve got something. If you’d like to read it.”

The following week, I carried out of prison Art’s only copy of what was then called Day 3, 652. It was much later that night when I finished reading Art’s narrative that I set his manuscript down, determined to see the story to publication. Gabalfa existed only in name at that point—I had intended it for my own writing. And to publish Art’s story might threaten the teaching gig I’d grown to value. I was conflicted.

An agent and three of the “Big 5” publishers confirmed what I already knew, though: Zek is an important novel about the 21st century criminal justice system in America. For as Art describes in Zek, prison is “the womb inside which [prisoners are] warehoused, then spit back out into a society they no longer know, nor that recognizes them. And “…despite how much her children avow their hatred for her, [is] a mother who nurtures them in a manner that compels them to return.”

New York passed on Zek. As important as they thought it was, one publisher stated that Zek would be “too difficult to market”.

Zek’s publication is a matter of equity, though, of giving voice to someone who was state-raised, imprisoned at a young age, and who never had a voice. Art eventually found his voice. And it is a matter of social justice that Art’s voice be heard, for Art speaks not only for himself in Zek, but for the over 2 million other people incarcerated in the United States.

Please join Gabalfa Press and Old Growth Northwest for the book release of Zek: An American Prison Story on Tuesday, October 25, from 7-8pm at Third Place Books Seward Park. You’ll get to meet Marc and hear readings from Dolphy Jordan and UW Professor, Steve Herbert.

RSVP on Facebook.