Inside Alcatraz: My Time on the Rock, by Jim Quillen
Random House (2015), Hardcover, 384 pages
I do love prison books, and this one is a cracker, right up there with Papillon and Six Against The Rock, two of my favourites. The title is somewhat misleading, only about half the book is devoted to Jim Quillen’s time as a prisoner of America’s most notorious prison. This really the life story of a career criminal, from his difficult childhood with an alcoholic mother and indifferent father, to his early, minor criminal exploits, graduating to more serious crimes leading to a long sentence in San Quentin. Compulsively driven to escape, Quillen was eventually able to abscond from a work camp with two other inmates and go on a crime spree throughout the western US. Upon his recapture, Quillen learnt that he had breached Federal law during his rampage, and as a result was sentenced to 45 years in Federal prison. Because of his escape record, it was decided to send him to the most escape-proof prison in America – Alcatraz. While there, Quillen continued his attempts to escape, but his efforts were ultimately stymied by the bloodiest attempted breakout in the Rock’s history, the so-called Battle of Alcatraz in May 1946. Quillen was an unwitting eyewitness to this deadly confrontation, which left 3 prisoners and 2 guards dead, while sheltering with other prisoners as a firestorm was directed upon the prison by guards, police, the Marines and even the Navy. But this horror was be a turning point for Quillen, at his lowest point after the battle, he was found by a kindly priest who guided to God, and a realization that he wanted a new life, free, law-abiding and loved. From there on the book is an inspiring, often touching record of a man’s efforts to rehabilitate himself, reconciling with his estranged family, working towards earning parole, first from Alcatraz, then San Quentin, building a career as an X-ray technician, and eventually love, marriage and fatherhood. This is an entrancing book, fast-moving, graphic and exceptionally well-written. Quillen is very Papillonesque as he details his early life, his desperation for freedom, and his desire to rehabilitate himself if given a chance. I highly recommend this book, it’s a great and inspiring read.