Editor’s Note: The author shares Part 2 of a story about an inmate named John, incarcerated in a California prison. She has been corresponding with him for several years, and shares some of his story — and his artwork — from behind bars.
It goes without saying that John’s life has been in hiatus since incarceration in 1991 when he was 23 years old. It shows in his taste in music: Van Halen, Rick Springfield, Eddie Money, Ozzy Osbourne, Bruce Springstein, Scorpions, Tesla, Boston, Chicago, Journey, Paula Abdul and Dido. In some prisons the inmates are not allowed any music, probably due to gang activity and rap music messages. Often the lyrics that run through his head are the last ones he remembered before imprisonment. Fortunately in Sacramento, John said there were excellent radio stations which he got to listen to by way of the radio he owned.
Unexpected things happen in prison.
In August of 2013, John was called to report for his medications. He left his cell at the same time another inmate was released from his cell. This other prisoner named “Mike” was high on meth and vowed to attack whoever he saw first, which happened to be John. Mike, outfitted in prison-issued boots, tripped John from behind and began to kick John. John got 27 stitches in his face. After four days John was back in his cell. His neighbor in the adjoining cell passed on a message from Mike, who was now spending two years in the “hole” [Administrative Segregation] for Battery with Serious Injury to an Inmate. Mike asked if John would be willing to sign a “compatibility chrono” which is a document saying that John is not a known enemy to Mike. If John signed it, Mike would be able to return to the same yard he was on previously and would be in the same exercise yard with John.
John’s thoughts: “That will never happen.” Two weeks later, he saw Mike in a holding cell in the outside yard. Mike told him he was sorry he had whacked out and assaulted him. John told him he forgave him and would sign the chrono.
After John’s parole was denied, I encouraged him to put effort into creating art that he could sell in order to pay off his restitution, which he had managed to pay down from $,5000 to about $1,500 in the 25 years he has been incarcerated. I have paid to have six of his pieces properly mounted, matted and framed, including this one called “Evil Ways.” The shading and shadows of the faces and creatures he draws are so detailed. I have asked him several times how he composes his art. He just says the subjects just come to him, and he lays out the main objects and fills in the voids with details as he goes. It is great fun to go to the mailbox and find one of his productions waiting there.
John’s counselor from the parole board thinks it is a great idea to prove to the authorities that John has a viable way to make a living on the outside. As John said, “I decided to stand up like a man … and have my restitution paid off and to show the parole board I have a means of supporting myself. It’s about time I put my big boy pants on.”
Another idea I had was to have John complete a written proof that he has reflected on his past and has grown as an adult. I purchased a workbook called “Blueprint for Progress,” which is used in some Al-Anon meetings to help members who are doing a Fourth Step Inventory. I send him parts of the inventory to write out his feelings about a variety of subjects, such as Resentment, Gratitude, Trust and Shame. Currently there are not too many self-help groups operating in the prison due to budget considerations, so he has been working on this mostly by himself. I will be sending the whole collection to his parole board before his next hearing to show them the work he has been doing.
In February 2014, John was suddenly placed in “the hole.” The move was made because two inmates who had previously assaulted John were released from solitary confinement, and it was thought they could be dangerous so John was moved to keep him safe:
“All of my personal property (TV, radio, art supplies, letters, photo albums, clothes, address book, books, drawings) has all been boxed up and placed in storage, and I’ve been put in a cell in the hole all by myself with a two-inch mattress, two sheets, a blanket, a two-inch toothbrush, some toothpaste, one bar of soap, a roll of toilet paper, one pen filler, a prison jumpsuit, five pieces of blue paper and that’s it.”
He struggled to remember my home address and had been unable to remember the zip code. Finally a letter from me arrived and he was able to write and tell me about the solitary confinement. Life went on.
“All meals are served through a tray slot on the steel prison cell door. You are ordered to turn your bright cell light on before you’re given your meal or else you don’t eat. The food is terrible but of course, it’s prison.”
Life in SHU [Segregation Housing Unit] is as unpredictable as anywhere in the system. When he first got there he witnessed another inmate get pepper-sprayed, handcuffed and hauled off to an unknown location. In his next letter John wrote, “I still have a hard time dealing with the madness that surrounds me. Just a couple of months ago (back in his old cell block), the guy who was downstairs right below me in the same vent was yelling for help because his cell mate tried killing him by continuously kicking him in the head with boots on. Rumors are he’s still in the hospital with permanent head injuries.”
Two weeks later, John said, “Yesterday I was asleep about one o’clock in the afternoon when an officer kicked my door real hard to startle me. I rolled over and the officer said ‘Come here, John.’ I got up and went to the door and it was a friend of mine who came to check on me and ask me how I was doing. It really made me feel good inside. The officer said that the yard was becoming violent the last month or so.”
The officer also told him if he was sent to San Diego it was really nice there. It was two months before John got transferred.
Milli 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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