As a genealogist in New Hampshire, I was used to unusual requests for research, mostly from out-of-state researchers trying to figure out where their ancestors came from in New England. I never had received an envelope stamped repeatedly STATE PRISON GENERATED MAIL until six years ago. I was a little afraid to open it. And how did someone in a California prison get my address in the first place?
The handwritten letter was from Eric G. who was born in Rollinsford, NH, and claimed his mother died in a one-car crash when he was only six months old. Eric said he knew nothing about his mother’s family because his father had taken him out of state immediately after his mother’s death. He and his father lived all over the U. S., eventually finding their way to California, where he committed murder and was likely to spend his life in prison.
It was relatively easy to prove whether his tale of losing his mother was accurate. There it was splashed all over page 7 of the Manchester Union Leader six months after he was born. Picking up the story from that date I was able to work backwards using vital records and newspapers to show his mother’s family was part French, part Swedish and traceable to the 1800s. I mailed off my findings, expecting that was the end of the correspondence. Far from it. Eric and I wrote back and forth for five years, developing what my former minister called a prison ministry. Uncomfortable with the preachy sound of that label, I rejected the term for several years. Besides, I was gathering information on what goes on behind prison walls. As a freelance writer, it is useful to have insight into a variety of topics. Unless you know someone behind bars it is unlikely you know many details about prison life. Following the trial of William Edic this past year may have given you a glimpse.
What I find compelling is how someone fares in the prison setting because let’s face it: one doesn’t stop being a person once you have committed murder or another felony. The majority of prisoners are incarcerated because they committed a crime deemed by our legal system as so bad that getting them off the street and away from the rest of us is justified. Or they repeatedly disobeyed so many laws that eventually they were locked up in a correctional institution. Twenty to thirty years into their sentence, who are they?
In my letters to Eric I attempted to engage him in thinking beyond the walls of his cell and to read things other than only what was readily available in the prison library. He told me he got my name from the NH Historical Library by asking for a list of people who might do research for him. It was apparent he had access to the Internet and could acquire addresses. Sometimes Eric sent artwork he created. He rarely commented on books he read or television shows he was allowed to watch.
And yet, he responded to being put on the church’s prayer list, which was printed weekly in the church bulletin. He wrote several letters to my former minister.
He also asked me for help with something he couldn’t do from behind bars. Aware that he could die unexpectedly, Eric was concerned about where he would be buried. He asked me to find out if he could be buried next to his mother in Rollinsford. I had not researched how to get buried before, so that took a little time to track down someone who could answer the question. The sexton of the correct cemetery found that three lots had been purchased in 1970 and were still owned by Eric’s father. It took a few letters to introduce myself and explain what Eric wanted done, and a couple more to get the proper paperwork completed.
In my letters I found it hard to share much of what occupied my daily life because I didn’t want Eric to know too much about my loved ones or about a life he wasn’t likely to experience. If I went on vacation, I tried to keep up regular letter-writing so there was not a big gap in correspondence, aware that even a road trip to New Jersey could sound pretty worldly to one whose life is confined to 64 square feet. I did share some events from my past and how I had worked my way through them. Sometimes when Eric related an incident that involved another inmate, I could glimpse the anger and bigotry that shaped his view of the world. I could also see the environment of hostility and external control he lived in would not change by spouting Bible verses or offering suggestions for what I would do in that situation.
As if I could possibly know what life inside the barbwire fence was like.
I visited him at the old Folsom Prison near Sacramento several years ago. The visiting procedure was like landing on a foreign planet. Knowing what to do, where to sign in, where to stand, who to speak to and how to dress was not clearly spelled out. Other prisoners’ visitors were the only source of directions that were accurate. Thankfully, they recognized my bewilderment and guided me through the process. I got caught up in their jovial mood as they met up with other women who did this on a weekly basis, jumping through hoops to see their sons or husbands.
I was unable to tell Eric ahead of time about my visit, so it came as a shock to him that he had company. He was delivered to a cell on the other side of the plexiglass window from me, and knew instantly who I was. What other grey-haired woman had he seen in 25 years? Later I was surprised at how easy it was to talk for an hour to someone I only knew through letters. At the time I was too busy trying to take in the cement walls, the heavy black telephone receiver, and the scratches in the glass that separated us.
In the years since that visit, Eric has not fared well. One way he deals with frustration is to go on a hunger strike, which leaves him weaker and less able to keep up a routine. He has often written about conflicts he was in with other inmates and/or guards. When he last wrote, it was an incoherent ramble, vaguely suggesting harm might come to some guards and personnel at the facility where he lives. I was alarmed enough that I sent a copy of the letter to his warden, just to be sure I was not harboring information which the correctional staff should know. To my knowledge he has been an inmate of at least six facilities in California, partly due to his mental health issues.
→Click here to read Part 2 of Eric G.’s story.
Milli Knudson taught school for 23 years in the Londonderry School District and retired from there 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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