I can’t tell you where it began, my obsession with the human mind. In general, I have always been fascinated by the way people think, what motivates them consciously and subconsciously and the way our environment influences the lens through which we view the world. My obsession in this area has broadened over the years, but for a long time it was almost exclusively focussed on criminality and all that goes with that. It’s not just crime and the people who commit it that enthral me, but how we as a society choose to deal with criminality. The way that we weave systems of control and justice into our cultures and accept, at least at a broad societal level, that this is the way we will discipline those who commit sins against our collectively agreed formula of life.
So profound was my obsession with this subject, that I got myself a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Science majoring in Criminology. I never truly considered walking this as a career path, for two main reasons. One – I am a bleeding heart who romanticises pain and is drawn to deeply hurt people, making me a terrible candidate for dealing with the realities of that kind of job. Two – I don’t like turning my interests into work because it sucks the fun out of them – and who wants to suck the fun out of crime?! No one. I was well established in my job before going back to Uni to finish something I had started ten years earlier, and I was happy to choose something for the love and nothing more. Bit by bit over four years I chipped away and eventually graduated with the sense of triumph that comes from getting to a place you want to be, on your own terms and in your way.
My Mum had a small collection of books when I was a kid and, naturally, the one I was most enamoured with was the one I was told not to touch, the story of Jeffrey Dahmer. I never did read that specific book, but I could tell by the cover that it was about a person who’d done something very bad. This begged the question, “Why?” Why do people do things so bad that they have books written about them that frightened parents the world over tell their children not to touch? Whose fault is it that they are like this? Theirs, their families, society, all of the above and more? I’ve watched a thousand documentaries, listened to endless podcasts and read very widely all in pursuit of an answer to this question.
When I was sixteen years old, I tried to initiate a pen pal relationship with a man on death row in the USA. I used the family computer and my Mum caught me because I emailed from a webpage and when he responded, it went to my Mum’s email account. She was horrified and told me never to do that again, and I couldn’t understand what the big deal was. It still makes me laugh to think about her face when met with my nonchalance. I understand now why it was not “appropriate” and why Mum reacted that way, but in my curiosity all I’d wanted was speak to a person whose mind had a (very) unique insight into my area of interest.
It is no surprise then that visiting the prison to end all prisons was on my bucket list, Alcatraz. “If you disobey the rules of society, they send you to prison; if you disobey the rules of the prison, they send you to US.” As soon as I watched ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ as a far-too-young child, I knew I had to go there. I had to stand in the place where four men spent eight months chipping away at walls with spoons, until three of them dug themselves into a corridor and ultimately escaped into the night, never to be seen again. I needed an insight into the person’s state of mind who commits to that dig, makes a fake head to leave in his bed to trick the guards, avoids detection from foot patrols and watchtowers, blows up, by mouth, a pre-prepared boat made from sewn together raincoats, launches it into the perilous waters of San Francisco Bay and sails off into the darkness. It is quite possibly the most famous prison escape story of all time and certainly one of the most thoroughly researched in criminal justice history.
So, you can imagine my excitement when on a trip to the US in 2011, with my husband James and Father-in-Law Andy (Dad), we went to San Francisco and booked our seats on the boat over to the island. Now you have to understand, this was like a pilgrimage for me. I was only 24 and I had wanted to come to this place for over half my life. All the hours spent consuming content that had severely compromised my psychological health, all those conversations with people who shared my over-eagerness for crime… and the unfortunate ones who did not, getting in trouble from my Mum for trying to befriend a dead man walking (look, if it’s good for Susan Sarandon, it’s good for me) had led to this moment. Unfortunately, James and Dad did not share my enthusiasm. It’s not that they weren’t interested, they were, they just weren’t, “I’ve had a life-long fascination with this place so let me pore over it for many hours undisturbed until my obsession has been satiated” kind of interest.
When we got off the boat, we walked over to a platform and there stood a small, older lady. She was holding a book in one hand and as I excitedly stood right at the front, I could see who the author was. A man stood up and talked about the rules while at Alcatraz, then he announced that we had a special guest today doing book signings – Ms Deirdre Capone, the niece of Al Capone himself. This was cool! It’s like meeting Tony Soprano’s niece; it’s not like it’s the big man himself, but they share blood and they share stories. There would be a quick talk about the book now and then Deirdre would sit at the exit to the prison so you could buy your book and get it signed on your way out. She talked about her Uncle’s innocence. She told fond stories of him from her childhood. She spoke of government conspiracies. However much I do or don’t agree with her opinion about her uncle’s life, I was fascinated to hear that even the most hated beings among us have deeply complex and layered stories. To be one of the most profound and well known criminals in American history is a powerful legacy, but so is having the love and devotion of a niece through it all.
We walked up through the concrete jungle towards the main building. We were on a small island that was originally developed with facilities for a lighthouse and military fortification and would later become a military and then federal prison. On August 11, 1934, the first group of 137 prisoners arrived at the place chosen for its isolation from the outside world. And, presumably, because it was surrounded by the tremendous currents of a freezing San Francisco Bay, meaning escape was near impossible (and those who tried were caught, or died). It was intended for criminals who continually caused problems at other facilities, which is why it got its reputation for housing the worst of the worst. They had a one-man-per cell policy and they meant business. For 5 years they had a rule of silence, except for at mealtimes and during recreation (this rule was changed in the late 1930s). It was very cold, and there was no electricity.
We walked through the admissions area, which was the same route the prisoners themselves would have taken when arriving on the island. We were given details about the day-to-day, the process for new inmates, when yard and mealtimes were, and the conditions at the prison. Apparently, the food was very good (comparatively speaking) and not sharing a cell with someone else wasn’t always considered the worst thing in the world – it did have a privacy advantage over every other US prison at the time. When we stepped into the cell block, I thought my heart might stop; I was finally standing within the object of my obsession. I looked at the library, the dining room, the Warden’s office (coincidentally, I also looked at the Warden’s house, which was far nicer than you would imagine and somehow unwholesome in its loveliness), and paced, mesmerised, up and down the cell block listening to my recorded tour guide.
When I came to Frank Morris’ cell, I stared at the hole in the wall and tried to imagine being him. Being here in this place, cold, alone, desperate to leave but patient enough to bide your time, quietly hatching a plan with three other men over stolen conversations at rushed lunches and in crowded yards full of listening ears. I’m not glorifying the action of escaping from a prison, but I am glorifying the wonder of the human mind and the extremes it will go to in ensuring its own survival. No matter what you think about criminals and how they should be dealt with, there is no argument that human beings, purely in the biological animal sense, are ‘designed’ or evolved to live in cages. It is not natural to the human condition and it therefore does things to people’s, often already disturbed, minds.
I walked out into the small exercise yard and climbed the giant amphitheatre stairs to the very highest point. I could see right out over the Bay and to the city of dreams beyond, taunting from the other side. The incongruence of this scene struck me. I imagined Frank, sitting in the yard made entirely of concrete – cold, grey, unforgiving – day after day, looking out on the beauty and colour of the wildlife, the water, and San Francisco herself. Breathing in the fresh, crisp air and looking out at that view, I imagine you would be able to taste freedom. You would be able to smell it. It would call to you. I sat there for a long time, willing myself into the state of mind of people who had come before me. A wish to understand something that you can never really comprehend without horrendous consequences to yourself, is a frustrating one.
I sat in a cell and imagined what it would be like to have as a home. To wake up every day knowing that, whether you relinquished it through your own actions, or you were innocent, you had no freedom. You slept, ate, spoke, bathed, went to the toilet and breathed fresh air only at the instruction of others. You had no comfort, no warmth, no human touch, insufficient mental stimulation. If you had anyone to visit, they were allowed to come only once a month. Otherwise, when you were not alone, your time was spent exclusively with other people experiencing similar levels of disturbance, and with guards who demanded your compliance. There would be limited opportunities for laughter and frivolity, and the risk of showing any weakness through an outlet such as tears must have been unthinkable. Not only would you be physically trapped, but mentally and emotionally trapped as well. Again, criminals or not, what does it do to the mind? And more than that, what does it make the mind be willing to do? I think the case of Frank Morris and brothers Clarence and John Anglin goes some way to answering this question.
After wandering around for ages, but still not as long as I would have liked, I realised I couldn’t see James and Dad anywhere. I eventually thought they must have gotten bored waiting for me and would meet me at the exit. When I went through the gift shop they were nowhere to be seen, but there was Deirdre Capone, signing books and taking names. I was eager to meet her, buy a copy and hopefully get a photo. I realised at this point that James had walked off with our camera, and the second camera was with Dad. This was before the days where all phones have amazing cameras on them (I think I had a temporary, crappy old Nokia for the trip), so it meant I couldn’t take a picture with Deirdre… it also meant that I wanted to punch James and Dad in the face.
Here I was, on my life-long vision quest, and all these two wanted to do was escape from Alcatraz themselves. Not only that, they left me without telling me where they were going and with no way of contacting them. I finally found them standing outside the ladies’ toilets which they said they had done because, “I would end up there eventually.” It made me angry that they were right. Apparently because we were on an island, I should not have been concerned about losing them because, “they couldn’t go far.” I immediately started complaining about the missed photo opportunity, at which point Dad pulled out his camera to show me the once in a lifetime shot of him and Ms. Capone, his face smiling as big as a Cheshire Cat. I was not happy. To this day, he and James laugh at me for never getting over how they walked off leaving me camera-less in a place they couldn’t give two-hoots about, but that I’d been waiting to go to my whole life.
We got on the boat and I watched the prison become smaller on the horizon as we moved away. I looked into the Bay and did what I imagine many have done; wonder if they made it. Could they really have pulled it off? Desperation and will are a powerful combination.
Today, on a much bigger scale, we see the ways that criminalisation impacts on our societies and the long-term effects of being institutionalised. Prisoners are a somewhat forgotten sub-set of society and that’s precisely why we lock them away, not just to keep ourselves safe, but so we don’t have to think about their existence – out of sight, out of mind. It is however an illuminating exercise to think about what it would be like to live under the conditions of imprisonment. It is not a moral question of whether people deserve to be locked up or not, it’s a question of interest about the human brain and the ways it adapts to conditions of extreme physical and psychological stress, and prolonged hyper-vigilance. Whatever was in the heads of those men going in, I don’t think the mind could ever be the same after a visit to Alcatraz. And if Frank and his mates didn’t make it, well, maybe they were better off.