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Extract: Inside Alcatraz by Jim Quillen

“This book is an autobiography describing the progressive and insidious nature of involvement in crime. It illustrates how minor infractions of the law, if unchecked, may escalate into major criminal activities. The ensuing consequences may be death or years of incarceration, humiliation, and degradation.”

Jim Quillen, AZ586 – a runaway, problem child and petty thief – was jailed several times before his twentieth birthday. In August 1942, after escaping from San Quentin, he was arrested on the run and sentenced to forty-five years in prison, and later transferred to Alcatraz.

Inside Alcatraz is the true story of life inside America’s most notorious prison – from terrifying times in solitary confinement to daily encounters with ‘the Birdman’, and what really happened during the desperate and deadly 1946 escape attempt.

Read on for an extract from the book…

Inside Alcatraz
Jim Quillen


Alcatraz, 11 p.m., August 28, 1942

With a crash, the steel gate slammed shut, a sound that seemed to bring finality to everything that life had to offer.
        I walked into the small six-by-nine-by-seven-foot gray cell that was to be my home for years to come. I saw a steel bed, a straw mattress, and a dirty, lumpy pillow. The cell was lighted only by the large overhead lights outside, which illuminated each cell enough to enable the guards to make their numerous nightly counts.
        I noticed the cell contained a toilet with no seat. At the end of the bed, next to the toilet, was a small washbasin with only one tap. Cold water! Above the sink was a single shelf that extended the entire width of the cell. Next to the bed was a small metal table that folded down flat against the wall. This was my home. I realized that, at twenty-two years of age, this was to be my home, my future, for years to come—and possibly the place of my death.
        As I looked about me, it was as though the room began to close in, with some strange odor that dominated the air and stifled me. I suddenly realized it was an odor I must learn to live with, the smell of a marking pen that gave me my new identity. It was on my bedding and my clothing, making me into another nonentity in the world of the criminal. I was engulfed with the realization that I was no longer a person, but instead AZ-586, a criminal who had been sentenced to serve forty-five years in the federal penal system.
        I then became aware of the men around me. Some were awake, as I could hear low tones of whispering from one cell to another, passing the word that a transfer of “fish” had come in. This stirred hope in the hearts of some, for each time a new “fish” arrived, it usually meant that there was hope that some of the old “long-timers” might be transferred to another institution.
        Not only was my cell dark and gloomy, I realized with a shiver, it was also cold and windy. Although I knew I would not sleep, I would at least be reasonably warmer for the remainder of the night if I got into bed.
        While making up my bed, I was startled by the sudden flash of light hitting my eyes. It was a guard making his count. He asked why I was not undressed and in bed. I explained I was a new transfer and had just arrived. He warned me that if I wasn’t undressed and in bed in the next few minutes, I might find out what the “hole” was at the “Rock.” This added great haste to my retiring.
        As I lay there, I began reviewing in my mind the various stories I had heard about Alcatraz. As can well be imagined, I did not sleep much that night.
        I had lived in and around the Bay Area all my life, thus Alcatraz’s reputation was not unfamiliar to me. My thoughts flashed back to the many stories I had had occasion to hear, read, and wholeheartedly believe. I was soon to learn firsthand, however, that while some stories were fabricated, imaginative versions from a creative writer, most indeed were quite true. Much to my dismay, I could not recall ever hearing anything favorable about the prison or its inmates.
        “Rehabilitation” was not part of the Alcatraz vocabulary, or ever considered. The institution was there for the purpose of proving to unruly prisoners that they had reached the ultimate termination of their undisciplined way of life. I recalled the prison being referred to as “Hellcatraz” and “Devil’s Island of America.” Vivid in my mind were stories of brutality and regimentation. Among the many facts I had read or heard about while in San Quentin (a tough prison in itself) was the lack of privileges allowed the inmates at Alcatraz.
        I began to think about my past. How had I, in a few short years, progressed from a state reformatory to the United States’ toughest and most notorious federal prison?
        I could vividly recall how I had been warned over and over again: “If you don’t change your ways, you will some day end up in prison for life!” It was true. The roads to crime and self-destruction are easy to locate in the journey of life, but once embarked upon, very difficult to abandon.

1 Growing Up Fast

I was born in San Fransisco, California, on September 16, 1919. My father was a man who did not know how to outwardly show affection and love. His whole life was devoted to being a good employee for the company where he worked. He was a quiet, nonverbal man and a strict disciplinarian who was inclined to use physical punishment.
        My mother was a very lovely woman, with one very large problem: alcoholism. I have no idea how long she had this before my birth, and I did not have the opportunity to learn much about her or to know her very well, as by the time I was seven, she had deserted us. I do know my father had tried in many ways to help her, but to no avail.
        Now, working in the medical field, I realize that alcoholism is a disease; but I have often wondered, as I have grown older, what underlying factor drove her to this point. I am sure that, in her own way, she loved her children—my younger sister Kay and me—but I am also sure the only thing she seemed to need more was alcohol. Thus her priorities in life were alcohol, husband, and then children. My sister and I were not bad children. In fact, I would say we were normal, average children and most generally well behaved. But for my part, that would soon change.
        My memories of childhood during the time we were together as a family are mostly of a violent or sad nature. Today I have only three prominent memories of my mother, and each is associated with violence and sadness.
        The first memory is that of my father, my mother, and myself sitting in front of the fireplace one evening just prior to Easter. We were fixing an Easter basket for my sister, who was asleep in another room. We were laughing and having a good time. My mother had been drinking but was not causing any problem. She was sitting in front of the fireplace. My father was sitting with his back to the door that opened into a hallway that led to the bathroom and my parents’ bedroom.
        My mother excused herself to go to the bathroom. I was looking toward my father when I heard her returning. She opened the door, hesitated a few seconds, then reached down into the woodbin beside my father and picked up a large piece of firewood. My father didn’t pay any special attention when she returned, as he was fixing the basket for Kay. Instead of coming into the room and sitting down, my mother suddenly brought the piece of wood crashing down on my father’s head. It made a terrible sound that I can
remember to this day.
        I do not understand why it didn’t kill him. I am sure that was my mother’s intention. It did cause a terrible laceration to his head, but he did not lose consciousness. He had the presence of mind to roll away so that my mother could not hit him again. When he got to his feet, she dropped the wood and ran into the bathroom, locking the door behind her.
        My father took my sister and me with him when he went to get medical attention. After the doctor closed the wound, he advised my father to go home and rest. When we arrived home, my mother was gone. She was gone for several days. When she returned, my father was forgiving and took her back. Our lives settled back into the same old routine.
        Whenever my mother could find a way to buy some liquor, she would. My father was very tolerant of her behavior but he also could become very violent if she managed to start an argument. This, at times, was not too hard to do, especially if my father was tired. Often this lack of tolerance was detrimental to all of us.
        Some time after the incident when she’d hit my father with the wood, and when everything had been going reasonably well, my mother went on another drunk. When my father came home from work he was disturbed but patient with her. He asked her not to drink anymore and she agreed. During the course of the evening she found a way to sneak a few more drinks and became very abusive to my father. He finally told her that he was going to find her booze and dump it out because she was getting loud and mean.
        To find her hiding places was not a simple matter as she was ingenious when it came to hiding her supply. But my father was a stubborn and determined man and, after much hunting, he found her supply and dumped it down the drain. This infuriated my mother to the point that she became violent. My father calmed her down and convinced her to go to bed. She agreed but told him he could not sleep in the same room with her.
        Our home was a small one-bedroom house and my sister and I slept on a davenport that opened up into a bed. On many occasions when my mother was drunk, my father would be forced to sleep with us. The second memory of my mother relates to a night when my sister and I had been in bed and asleep for some time. I was awakened by my mother shouting and swearing and my father tearing things up, looking for her liquor. I was frightened by all the commotion and afraid that my father would be injured again, but because I was so sleepy I soon went back to sleep until I was awakened by my father getting into the bed with us.
        At this time in my life I had a small brown-and-white fox terrier named Spotty who always slept on the foot of our bed. I can remember my father asking the dog to move over because he was taking up all the foot room on my father’s side.
        I guess the three of us had drifted off to sleep for some time before we were awakened by the dog barking and whining fiercely. My father told the dog to shut up. I believe he thought the dog was barking at something outside, but the dog wouldn’t stop. This was unusual because he always obeyed my father. My father then decided the dog needed to be let out, so he got up, walked the few steps to the front door, and opened it. When the fresh air hit him, he realized he was feeling ill and dizzy, but it passed after a few breaths.
        Suddenly he realized the house was full of gas. He ran back to the bed, picked up my sister, and yelled for me to follow him. He ran out on the porch with Kay and then came back to help me out. When I got to the porch, I saw that my little sister’s coloring was blue, and I am sure that in a short while she would have been dead.
        My father left us on the porch and went back into the house looking for my mother. As he went, he opened all the windows so he wouldn’t pass out. He looked through the house but my mother was gone. Apparently, some time after we were all asleep, she had gotten up, gone out the back door, walked around to the front door, and plugged the crack at the bottom of the door with rags. She then came back into the house, turned on all the gas jets, including some old wall outlets. She then went out the back door, locking it after her. She stopped to plug the crack under the back door with rags. I’m sure she had made arrangements to be picked up by someone, as we lived too far from town for her to walk.
        She never returned.

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