Editor’s note: This is Part 4 of a four-part series on Eric G., a NH inmate in a California prison.
Eric G., the subject of an earlier post, had been writing weekly letters to me for several years when unexpectedly there was no word from him in a couple of weeks which stretched into a month. I should have expected that one day I wouldn’t hear from him but there was no warning about this absence of letters so I was worried.
Things happen in prison, an understatement if ever I heard one.
A letter arrived from the same prison, stamped STATE PRISON GENERATED MAIL, with the name of a different prisoner in the return address. One of the drawbacks of writing to strangers in prison is the lack of privacy behind bars. I wondered if my name and address would one day be passed around the cellblock by Eric, with or without his knowledge. This letter was from John G. and said that Eric had been held in the infirmary due to a mental health issue.
John said he was trying to guard Eric’s possessions because Eric was coming back to the same cell as long as his condition got better. I wrote back, thanking John for his explanation of the lack of letters from Eric. John began to write regularly when he could because John was allowed the privilege of working outside in the gardens and greenhouse, so was able to get fresh air and exercise much of the day. Having been to Folsom, I knew how well-groomed the grounds were and was familiar with the variety of arid and moist conditions John spoke about. John talked a lot about plants. He really liked his outdoor work.
Eric was eventually sent to Vacaville, another prison in mid-state California, and Eric began to write again, the regular newsy letters full of ideas. His belongings were supposed to be held for him and transferred as soon as he was in at a permanent cell address. John G. also continued to write. His letters described particular plants and a few wild animals that he was interacting with. He also had a passion for drawing. Due to the more trusted status that he enjoyed, John was able to attend some art classes and had access to a few art supplies.
John was also quite open about his past, what had landed him in prison, and what he planned to do about it. John had committed murder under the influence of youth and drugs and had been in the penal system since his teen years. One thing he wanted to do was pay off the restitution he owed. For his outdoor work he was paid a small wage which he used to pay into this fund. Also, in his case, a portion of any money sent to him by his mother for toiletries, snacks or other purchases would go toward the restitution fund first, and he would get the balance to spend at the canteen at Folsom.
Originally John had been charged with $5,000 in restitution which in the 25 years he had been incarcerated, he was able to whittle down to a little over $1,000. I encouraged him to work on his art so that he would have a skill to market when and if he was paroled. His whimsical clown and puppy drawing is for sale as well as other ones I have had framed for him.
Meanwhile Eric improved enough to be sent back to Sacramento. Needing the cell space, the prison had boxed up his belongings and held them in storage. He was no longer neighbors with John G. but they saw each other sometimes in the exercise yard. Eric was noticeably angrier, upset with being moved, unable to get his personal belongings back when he wanted them, then even more upset to find certain books and a radio were missing.
Even more significant, the California economy began to tank, and Eric mentioned multiple impacts on the facilities where he was housed. However, between July 2012 and August 2105, Eric was sent to Vacaville, Soledad, back to Represa (Sacramento), Kern Valley State, Vacaville once again, RJ Donovan (San Diego), High Desert State, San Luis Obispo, and Salinas Valley State. This led me to wonder how much of a financial twist the California prison system could be in if they had money to send Eric all over the state. Perhaps the budget for transportation was a larger line item than food or programs for the inmates.
- Eric’s thoughts on the economy:
5 Jan 2012: “Well, for X-mas we got fed little better, i.e., basically a repeat of Thanksgiving dinner: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, vegetables, dinner roll, salad and pie. We got roast beef and pie for New Year’s-not bad for prison.”
- 31 Jan 2012: “Apparently the postal department has said their delivery times for mail will be 3 to 5 days slower than last year; apparently because of budget issues and the fact that fewer people are using the postal delivery system. Well, it is what it is-gotta adapt and roll with the punches.”
- 26 Feb 2012: “[The prison officials] don’t want to be seen as ‘pandering’ to patients/prisoners weakness for abuse of certain kinds of medications I suppose. At one time it was okay to prescribe us really good top-of-the-line psychiatric medications, but too many guys were abusing the stuff and/or overdosing on it.
The head Drs. got all the heat, so they started limiting what forms of drugs are allowable in prison for pysch therapy.”
- 7 October 2012: “The food is getting worse and smaller portions mostly…People seem to be acting ‘weird’ lately. I guess they sense an impending time of tribulation and reckoning fast approaching … Don’t know what it is, but it’s definitely in the air – or maybe it’s just me.”
- 18 Oct 2012: “I have more opportunities to program here [Soledad] and more privileges. The food is a bit better than Vacaville was.”
- 20 Oct 2012: “I receive a small weekly allowance ($1) for programming. I was able to treat myself to a small 4 oz. bottle of lotion and a Ramen noodle soup and a small piece of Starburst candy. Next week I’ll have $2 because they advanced me to stage II… The highest stage (Mentor) gives out $5 a week and if you want you’re allowed to save up your allowance until you have enough to buy some of the more
pricey items…When I was here last time we could earn up to $14 a week, but they had to lower it to its current level because of the budget crisis in Sacramento.”
- 8 Nov 2012: “Prisons became a big profit boom in the ’80s up until the late 2000s era. It was a big job creator and profitable for the powers that be. For years the prison budget topped nearly 6 billion dollars annually. All that money went into the pockets of prison employees for the most part. Now the state is broke and they see the stupidity of creating a prison industrial complex like the one in California… Even in here we’re being denied programs because they can’t afford to pay enough staff to do the work.”
- 9 Dec 2012: “In here turkey (ground up) is the primary meat product we get whenever we do get any meat. Everything termed meat in prison is always something that has been ground up and processed and then given to us in form of patty or sausage or ground up dish, or lunch meat (turkey bologna).”
- 3 Nov 2013: “It’s taking over a month to receive packages here after they’ve been ordered. With the holidays and 4th quarter everyone’s loved ones are sending their packages, so the back-up is in full effect.”
Eric’s mental health deteriorated in 2014. In June of that year, Eric sent a letter illustrated with obscene cartoons. It was shock because he had never drawn anything like that and sent it to me. I wrote back my usual upbeat letter and ended it with a request that he not send anything like that again. I did not hear from him directly for months, sometimes just an envelope with a magazine clipping, no words or message were sent from his cell.
Suddenly at the end of September 2015, the same week my first article on him appeared here, a letter arrived from him. That was spooky. His letter was sent before the online posting appeared, so it was a coincidence, but creepy just the same. He asked for forgiveness. I have just mailed him a copy of each of the articles, so we’ll see how that is received. For now, his story continues in letter form.
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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