Eric G. (part 2): Inmate provides a window into life behind bars

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[Author’s note: This is the second in a series about prisoner Eric G., a NH native incarcerated in the California prison system.]

In a letter dated January 2010, Eric reported there had been an earthquake registering 6.5 the previous week. If you have ever read “A Man in Full” by Tom Wolfe, you probably share my reaction to this news. An earthquake which hits a maximum security prison? Good grief.

Having been shuttled from one facility to another for over 20 years, Eric was in a position to do a comparison study for conditions all over the California prison system. “The ventilation is pretty good in most prisons, but in some places it’s awful, like in Corcoran. It gets up to the 100s in the cells in summer. I would lay down on the floor and try to absorb some of the coolness of the concrete floor.”

His thoughts on religion: “A lot of times I don’t feel like I’m worthy of God’s love and salvation because of my criminal history, but I keep in mind that Christ died on the cross beside two criminals, one of whom received last minute grace and salvation…”

Eric G. recognized for his talent for art, behind bars.
Eric G. recognized for his talent for art, behind bars.

Exercise yard: “Yesterday we found a bat on our yard. It was still alive even though for the last two days it’s been raining and very cold, poor thing. We put it on top of some toilet paper and then covered it up, hoping it might get warm enough to fly away. But staff removed him from the yard, so he’s most likely dead now for sure. That’s life I guess, here today and gone tomorrow.”

Generosity: “Whenever I get a package [something that is purchased from a particular vender and sent directly to the prisoner], I gave our staff a ‘tithe’ for prizes for bingo games. That’s the only way I could get it to other prisoners because we’re not allowed to just pass items amongst each other.”

Sports, in 2010: “Today I’m just sitting here watching the Superbowl. They just finished the halftime show – The Who. Haven’t they been around forever? Well, the Colts are winning so far. That’s all I care about….PS: Colts lost! Darn it!”

Jail: “My first day in jail I beat someone up for looking at me wrong. When they let me out for my one hour solo dayroom time, I took the TV off its stand, carried it upstairs to the second tier and threw it off the tier. That got me another charge, destroying state property.”

Sometimes there were activities that brought Eric pleasure and recognition:

Celebrity prisoners: “I met Charles Manson in 2004. He’s an old guy now, but he’s still pretty nuts. I got along with him even though a lot of people don’t like him. I don’t judge him, though.”

Childhood memories: “When I was about 11 years old, I found a wild duck’s nest when I was out playing in the woods and swamps in Michigan. I took an egg from the nest. It was about the size of a ping-pong ball, maybe a little smaller, and it was really pretty, light blue and speckled. I took it home and kept it gently nestled in my armpit to keep it warm. At night I’d do the same thing, trying to be careful as I slept, not to roll over on it. Well, that’s exactly what happened and it cracked open on me. There was a baby duck in there, but not fully ready to come out. I was really sad, but I learned a valuable lesson: Leave the mothering to the mothers!” and “When I was a teen living on Grandma’s Indian reservation I used to always catch brook trout, rainbow and German brown trout in the local streams. Well, aside from being delicious if you fry them, they are really good if you smoke them with sugar maple or apple wood.”

Eric expressed an interest in reading some books that the prison lending library didn’t have. It is not possible to send anything directly to prisoners in the California prison system, so one has to order from Amazon or another mail order vendor. Sometimes books get held up because of the title, or perhaps someone in the mailroom takes a shine to whatever book is sent. “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu was not allowed to be sent because I suspect the authorities felt I was aiding and abetting insurrection.

On prison life: “Prison can be a sick and twisted monster to deal with at times. There’s a lot of fear, hate, paranoia and depreciation of human life. Some of these guys see no way to survive except by becoming monsters and predators. It’s a depressing scenario to say the least. Sometimes the guards are more vicious than the prisoners because they have the power of life and death over prisoners. It gets ugly sometimes. I’ve learned the hard way that you just can’t win if you go up against or lock horns with the guards. They always win … Living in this really negative environment takes a lot to stay on top of, especially when you are bi-polar. I get depressed real easy, and when that happens all I want to do is sleep and isolate myself from others. It’s like I just want to disappear into oblivion.”

Milli KnudsonMilli Knudsen 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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