Amazing Grace: Evolution of a prison letter-writing ministry

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Editor’s note: This is a spin-off of a four-part series originally written about Eric G., a NH prisoner sentenced to life in prison and incarcerated in California. It is about John, an inmate who began corresponding with author Milli Knudsen after he went through the belongings of fellow inmate Eric G., who was temporarily moved from the cell block, and found the letters she’d sent to him.


The first letter I received from John in a California prison was written on April 1st, 2012. He introduced himself as a friend of Eric, occupied the cell next to Eric and referred to him as his “little brother.” He explained how the Enhanced Outpatient Program worked:

“This is a mental health facility but there are inmates here who are diagnosed with mental health problems like bi-polar, anti-social, paranoid schizophrenic disorder. This facility has a mental health staff like PhD doctors who prescribe medications. There are self-help groups to help inmates cope with interaction with people. Everyone has a case manager who you can request to see at any time and they help you to get through your problems. Every 90 days each inmate is taken to a classification committee to see if and how one is doing, meaning if all your medications are working. They also see how your group attendance is going as well as your yard attendance. Every 90 days one is evaluated to see if you are stable enough to get out of the EOP program to move to another regular prison yard.”

He explained that in 1990 he had lived a “very heavy drug and alcohol partying lifestyle and I shot a person who died. I was drunk and in no way am I trying to shuck the responsibility of why I’m in prison, but indeed it wouldn’t have happened if I was sober. So I live with a burden that is very heavy … I was just a punk kid when I was 21 years old, but I’m no longer that same punk kid.”

At Folsom prison, John worked in the outdoor crew, trimming hedges and mowing the vast expanses of lawn. He worked from 7:30 a.m. to about 2:30 p.m. every day and was paid $9 a month, most of which went to the restitution fund. [The only item he requested on his “wish list” for Christmas was a new pair of tennis shoes since the soles of his old pair were flapping.] Working outside gave John not only fresh air to breathe but the opportunity to know about what was happening elsewhere on the prison grounds.

In October 2012, he wrote, “There was a riot on the yard between the Asian inmates and the Southern Mexicans. A Southsider (Southern Mexican) refused to stop his violence at the warning shots fired into the riot, which resulted in him being shot. The Asians and Mexicans are on lockdown status.”

He also explained about inmates who “program:”

“Some (inmates) are clerks who type up disciplinary reports on who gets into trouble. Other inmates work in the medical unit as janitors where mental health inmates are on suicide watch. Other workers push guys to their mental health groups who are in wheel chairs.”

As winter set in, there was less yard work to do, except picking up trash and paper that blew into the prison yard. After getting soaked to the skin, he would return to his cell, shower and stay in lock-up until the following morning. He described his daily routine as, “Wake up at 6:30 a.m., wash up, brush my teeth. Then at 6:30 a.m. my breakfast tray is brought to my cell and given to me through a tray slot in the door. Monday is pancakes, Tuesday is waffles, Wednesday is coffee cake, Thursday are (sic) scrambled eggs, Friday gravy and biscuit, Saturday is muffin and Sunday fried egg.”

On days he worked outside he got a lunch sack which contained a sandwich and an apple. In the past some inmates had made “pruno” alcohol out of anything containing sugar and oranges, so they rarely got grapefruit, oranges, grapes, tomatoes, peppers, tuna, ketchup, BBQ sauce, honey or mayonnaise on their food trays. Every three days he was allowed time in the dayroom to watch TV from 6:30-8:30 p.m. or to use the phone.

In another letter, John described his cell and the view out the window:

“The back window is 5 inches by 5 feet in the back of my cell. I can see the barbed wire fence, a tower for the prison guard and beyond that I see trees and hills. There is often deer and cows and wild turkeys (really cool). I’m glad my view is so very, very awesome!”

Sketch by John, an inmate corresponding with Milli Knudsen
‘Amazing Grace,” a sketch by John, an inmate corresponding with Milli Knudsen

John is a prolific writer, sending me 20 letters in 2012, 38 in 2013, 58 in 2014 and over 40 already in 2015. Letters are often delayed in being delivered so it is not uncommon to hear from him for several weeks that he has received no mail from me even though I write fairly regularly. Even the slightest break in my letter-writing would bring an apologetic letter saying he hoped he had not offended me in any way. John draws almost obsessively especially when stressed out. In the summer of 2012 he was attending an art class every Tuesday for two hours. With access to larger pieces of drawing paper, John drew a piece called “Amazing Grace” which framed measures 37” by 29.” Two verses of the hymn are incorporated into sketches of faces, symbols and a brick wall.

Parole denied.
Parole denied.

As in most of John’s art, he uses images of emotions, guard towers, art frequently seen in tattoo parlors and symbols of the passage of time. In the spring of 2013 John had his first parole hearing since 2011. Parole was denied though the hearing findings were not apparent from the form they gave him. He was represented by a court-appointed attorney from Sacramento and was told he can try again in 5 years. Characteristically John worked out his frustration in art: Rosary beads surround his hands. Small sheets of paper drift across the drawing, as if torn from a calendar marking off the years he has been incarcerated. I think he was more worried about how his mother would react to the denial of parole than he was for himself.

Milli KnudsonMilli Knudson taught school for 23 years in the Londonderry School District until her retirement in 2002. She has written seven books on genealogy/New England history. One book, “Hard Time in Concord,” led to her becoming the paralegal for the Cold Case Unit in 2010, where she still volunteers. In her spare time she enjoys ballroom dancing, quilting, reading, skiing, and maintains a large collection of Vermont town histories, which enables her to contribute to several websites on genealogy. For the last six years she has been gathering information on the effects of institutional living in the hopes of writing a book on the subject.

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