The frontispiece of Jem: Lessons in Living is a pencil portrait by a young man named George Seng. George is serving a fifteen-year sentence in California’s Folsom State Prison. Quite a talent, I think you’d agree.
As a recovering alcoholic, I participate in a program that matches sober prison inmates with people on the outside. The idea is that we share our experience, strength, and hope about our recovery in an admittedly old-fashioned way—letters. In July 2012, I began a correspondence with California inmate, Stacy Worthy. Stacy was serving a life term at—and I’m serious about this—Pleasant Valley State Prison.
For many months, Stacy and I wrote back and forth. In mid-2013, Stacy was advised that he would be transferred to another facility—Corcoran State Prison, about sixty miles away. Not knowing when he would go, I continued to send my letters to Pleasant Valley. Then, in August I received a letter from George Seng, whom I didn’t know at the time. His letter contained my last letter to Stacy, and the explanation that Stacy had already packed for departure and was not allowed to include any more personal possessions. He had asked George to return it to me along with the explanation. Subsequently, I received a letter from Stacy at his new address, and we picked up where we left off.
But at the same time, George and I began a friendship by correspondence that continues to this day. Right off the bat, I noticed that he was in the habit of illustrating his letters with the most amazingly detailed pencil sketches. I asked him if would be interested in doing a sketch of Jem from a photograph. He leaped at the idea, and the result became the frontispiece for Jem’s memoir. It’s one of my most treasured possessions. I had it framed and it now hangs in my office where I see it every day.
George is a remarkable young man—incarceration in the California prison system notwithstanding. He’s Asian-American by heritage, with Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Chinese ancestors. He was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, on George Washington’s birthday in 1988. His mother, who spoke very little English, was encouraged by a nurse to name him George. When he was two, his family—father, mother, and two older sisters—moved to California. After high school graduation, George drifted from college to one job after another. In a story repeated by young men and women many times each day, a series of bad life decisions landed him in prison. He began serving his sentence in 2010, and will eligible for release in 2023.
George has not let prison derail his life. He participates in every possible program to improve himself. His passion is cars. Occasionally he sends me his most recent certification in the various disciplines of automobile mechanics.
And he draws. My, how he draws!
George would enjoy hearing from you, and if you have a photograph you’d like turned into a pencil drawing, he’d be happy to oblige. His address is:
George Seng AI-0890
Folsom State Prison 1-A2-26
P.O. Box 715071
Represa, CA 95671
Oh, and by the way, Stacy Worthy was paroled in April 2015, after serving thirty-five years. He and I continue to keep in close touch.