John Knock thought he wanted to be a forest ranger when he grew up. The youngest of four children, he spent his childhood between Nebraska and Indiana. His father was a Presbyterian minister and his mother a homemaker. He never actually became a forest ranger though. Knock was an everyday midwestern boy with dreams and ambitions that were too big for his small town. He made his way to California in the late 1960s to live by the ocean and pursue opportunities not available to him on the farm. But today, however, he works at Allenwood USP in Pennsylvania, teaching classes, developing teaching materials for courses, repairing fellow inmates’ radios and headphones, and modeling non-violent problem solving.
Knock has been described as calm and courteous. The 70-year-old man has been behind bars for over 20 years and counting as a first time offender, with no record of violence, and a spotless disciplinary record in prison. He was found guilty of participating in a marijuana drug conspiracy and thanks to mandatory sentencing guidelines at the time, the court slammed Knock with two life terms plus twenty without parole.
Knock says he’s become even more of an introvert during his time in prison. His dreams today are modest: If he could travel anywhere in the world, he says he’d go someplace “free of restrictions,” and when asked where he would go if he could leave prison tomorrow, his answer was simple: “With my family.” Luckily, he receives monthly visits from his family. He says it hurts to be separated from them, and that “being able to hug loved ones” is what he misses most about freedom.
Nonetheless, he’s spent a good portion of the past few decades reading, one of his favorite hobbies. Some of his favorite books are Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Human Game. He also likes the Who Did It novels. Knock says he’s a morning person and that his favorite season is fall. Before prison, his favorite hobbies were skydiving, woodworking, and hunting, so naturally he also says he prefers countryside over the big city.
Knock’s mother Bijou was 87 when he was sentenced. In the courtroom, she wore sunglasses so no one would see her cry, recalls Knock’s sister Beth Curtis. Bijou feared she would die, never seeing her youngest child free again — and she did. When their mother passed away, Curtis went through her belongings and found their paternal grandmother’s albums. Among hundreds of photos of Curtis and Knock’s father’s childhood in Iowa was a picture of the field, with script handwriting on the back of it: “Our Hemp Field.” “I never smoked tobacco, but perhaps a little rope behind the barn,” Calvin Knock told his daughter before his own death. “It did not ruin his life,” Curtis says. But it did ruin his son’s. Knock says he knew he was in a for a life sentence at his trial, but nonetheless, he says the “unfairness of the system” caught him by surprise.