Letters from prison
Las Plumas gunman Greg Wright weighs in on his crime and his regrets
Jim Adams hasn’t given up on Greg Wright, though he no longer holds out much hope of getting a reduction in the young man’s lengthy prison sentence.
Wright, you may remember, was the then-17-year-old Oroville boy who was arrested Sept. 28, 2007, after he took a .22 caliber pistol to Las Plumas High School, which he attended, brandished it before a roomful of people and shot twice into the ceiling before surrendering.
Nobody was hurt in the incident, and some of the students in the room later said they didn’t feel threatened by Wright and stayed with him voluntarily, but Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey nonetheless charged him as an adult. Ramsey offered Wright a plea deal of seven years to life; on the advice of Wright’s public defender, who argued that lifers almost never get paroled, the teen accepted a fixed-term 22-year sentence instead.
Adams quickly emerged as Wright’s most determined advocate, though he was hardly alone in that regard. The sentence was widely perceived as being too harsh, and local newspapers received dozens of letters questioning its fairness.
Adams, a retired school teacher and drug counselor, didn’t know Wright before the Las Plumas incident, but they’ve since become friends, primarily through correspondence. For more than a year Wright has been at Salinas Valley State Prison, formerly known as Soledad, where he initially resided in Level 4 Cell Block C.
SVSP is the fourth most violent prison in California. A maximum-security facility, it was built to house 2,410 inmates but now holds nearly twice that many. All of its 6-by-9-foot cells hold two inmates, and several hundred other prisoners are forced to live in large, dorm-like buildings containing three-tiered bunk beds. Most inmates are violent offenders serving long sentences, and gangs set the rules for interactions among prisoners.
Lockdowns during which prisoners are confined to their cells for weeks or even months at a time are common.
Wright entered SVSP when he was still 17, legally a child. So far, at least, he seems to be surviving reasonably well, though he has spent an inordinate amount of time on lockdown. He’s now sharing his cell with a triple murderer who is serving life without possibility of parole.
His letters—to his sister Tasha; his mother, Sharlee Morton, and to Adams—reveal a young man of limited intellectual ability and sophistication but with a reservoir of empathy and concern for others in his life, particularly his family members. In his writings, he also goes to great lengths to try to make sense of and explain his actions on Sept. 28, 2007, and to describe what life is like in prison. Remarkably, he never complains—about prison life or the severity of his sentence—though he can be unblinking in his assessment of the dangerous world he inhabits.
In a December 2008 letter to Tasha, for example, he consoles her on a recent illness and then asks her to post a message on the Las Plumas Web site in which he offers an apology, along with a disturbing glimpse into life at SVSP.
“I’m sorry for what I done,” he writes, “but whoever thinks that prison helps people there [sic] wrong. … Prison makes more people worser than when they came in. So when you hear about somebody going to a level 4 prison, which is the worst prison yard you can be on, think about it cause he may come in a good person but when he leaves he will be a person that has murdered at least one person and gotten away with it….
“I just wanted to let you know what prison is like just a little. Sorry for what I’ve done in the past at the high school but I never wanted to hurt anyone at the school. Sorry.”
Adams sent Wright a letter asking him to answer some questions regarding the incident at the school. One was why he’d brought along a gun. Wright’s answer, in a letter penned on Christmas Day, suggests just how delusional and emotionally overwrought he was that morning.
The youth writes that his intention had been to kill himself in front of Sara, a girlfriend who recently sent him a “Dear John” letter, to show her how much he loved her. But when he got to school he couldn’t go through with it, so instead he began looking, unsuccessfully, for a younger boy named Aaron who owed him some money. When he saw campus security headed his way, he “panicked and went into the band room.” He thought it would be empty, but it was filled with students.
Ramsey has charged Wright intended to kill Aaron, but in a January 2009 letter to his mother, Wright denies wanting to do anything other than get the money owed him. “I never wanted to hurt anybody else,” he writes, “plus Aron was only like 14 years old he was too young for me to beat him up he wouldn’t have had a chance against me you know that.”
Wright’s affection and concern for his mother are evident in his letters to her. In one, he tells her he doesn’t need a TV “just yet you can wait for a few more months OK. It don’t want you to pawn your jewelry for that OK and I mean it Mom, don’t do it… love always, your son, Gregory W.”
In a Feb. 22 letter to Adams, Wright describes his daily routine, as follows:
“Monday—Get up around 5 a.m., eat, lay down till 9 a.m., get back up and work out for an hour or so, eat, then lay back down and watch TV until dinner comes. This goes on Monday-Friday. Saturday & Sunday I don’t work out and when we get yard back I’ll go out to yard.”
By March, Wright was able to report that he’d been moved to a general-population block where he “got to go out to yard with everyone now, phone calls, I am even in school now. … I even help other guys that don’t know how to do it. Just cause I’m in a prison doesn’t mean I’ve stopped helping people out.”
His most recent letter to Adams is dated May 3. In it he tries to explain why he shot off his gun during the school incident. “Well, I didn’t want to shoot the gun except to shoot myself, but I didn’t want anybody to come in and make the matters worser then they were, so I told myself I would shoot to the roof to make sure no one would come in.”
That happened twice, once then he thought a staff person was entering the room, and again when he thought the police were trying to enter. “I didn’t want to do it but it was like they made me cause I told them not to try anything and I wouldn’t do anything wrong.”
One of the girls who remained in the band room with him, he writes, “talked me off shooting myself … and I am sure glad I didn’t do it too. … That’s all for now, God bless you.”
Adams worries about Wright. He sees the young man as an overgrown child with faulty judgment but a sympathetic soul who desperately needs guidance and support to help him make his way in society. Instead, he’s being schooled in the ways of prison, spending time in the company of murderers and rapists. And he’s got more than 20 years to go.