From the day Alcatraz first opened its doors in 1934 to the day facilities closed in 1963, it was an absolutely deplorable place to be incarcerated. Yet, for some reason, a lot of criminals actually requested the 22-acre island penitentiary in the San Francisco Bay as their spot for lockup. Few officials understood why, and a look inside the Rock hardly shed any light on the question: The most notorious prison in history was truly a terrible place.
Being sent to Alcatraz meant you were considered an extremely violent criminal — one of the worst. Because of this, the prison staff created strict standards for inmates to maintain, like cell tidiness and limited contact with fellow prisoners or anyone else.
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Alcatraz could hold up to 330 men, each in his own individual cell. This allowed prisoners some privacy but was hard on those who craved human contact. Infamous gangster Machine Gun Kelly loved the Rock because he wouldn’t be killed in his sleep by another inmate looking to get famous.
There were four different cell blocks: A-C (which boasted five by nine foot cells) and D block, for those in solitary confinement. The only time those prisoners could leave their room was during a weekly visit to a recreation yard.
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Those in the D block could remain there for days or even weeks. “A day in the hole was like an eternity,” Jim Quillen, former Alcatraz inmate said. It was enough to make the most mentally stable person question his sanity after a while.
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As prisoners of Alcatraz, each man had four rights: clothing, food, shelter, and medical care. If they wanted anything else, they had to earn it. This meant they weren’t guaranteed any form of contact with each other or the outside world.
While Al Capone was there, he received syphilis treatment. There were also dental and psychiatric services offered by a physician-in-residence. In the ’50s, they had to switch to contracted doctors due to massive budget cuts.
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The hospital was well-used by some of the prisoners, including Robert Stroud, nicknamed the Birdman of Alcatraz. He had a kidney condition that required him to be constantly treated. His mental health floundered at the island prison, so Robert poured his soul into caring for injured sparrows.
There was an enormous library in D-Block. When prisoners earned the right, they could check out more than 10,000 different titles. If there’s a good thing about prison, it’s getting the chance to finally make a dent in your to-read list.
Most prisoners never got to see the rows and rows of books. When they wanted to check out a book, they filled out a form, and then their books would be delivered to them later in the day. Everyone had magazines with lists of titles to choose from.
Reading was one of the only leisure activities available to inmates, so many took advantage of it. The Birdman himself studied law and learned several new languages. Others took correspondence classes from University of California, Berkeley.
Prisoners could earn a few more rights. In the ’50s, there were radio headsets and an auditorium that showed movies — all of these activities could be, and were often, taken from inmates though.
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There was a band in Alcatraz, the Rock Islanders. According to a former guard, the band was, “only a cut above a fourth- or fifth-grade band, but it did wonders for their self-esteem.” Either way, a little music is always good for someone’s morale.
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One famous member was Al Capone, who gushed in a letter to his son that he “learned a Tenor Guitar and then a Tenor Banjo, and now the Mandola.” Can you imagine being front row in a concert that featured Al Capone?
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The Rock Islanders had extremely strict practice rules: “No singing or whistling accompaniments will be tolerated. Any instrument which is played in an unauthorized place, manner, or time will be confiscated and the inmate placed on a disciplinary report.” It’s kind of like a real-life Footloose.
Inside the cells, each prisoner didn’t have much. Their rooms were a cot, wash basin, and a toilet. Jim Quillen described it as “a steel bed, a straw mattress, and a dirty, lumpy pillow.” Sounds like a comfortable space.
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One of the harshest rules at Alcatraz was a code of silence instituted by the first warden, James A. Johnston. The men were only allowed to speak during meals or recreation time. This terrible system only lasted until 1937.
The meals were served at the exact same times every day: breakfast at 6:45 am, lunch at 11:40 am, and dinner at 4:25 pm. Eating dinner at such an early hour seems surprising, but when you have to eat breakfast before seven, it makes sense.
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Surprisingly, the meals were good. “Food at Alcatraz is much better than usual prison fare. For dinner, there is meat, beans, coffee, bread, celery; for supper, chili, tomatoes, and apples, with hot tea,” Bryan Conway, another previous inmate, recalled.
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If prisoners weren’t in solitary, they could take up jobs around Alcatraz. There were a multitude of duties: laundry, kitchen work, burning the trash, and tending docks. They earned a whopping 5-12 cents an hour.
There were also intense letter stipulations. Men could only write two pages per week to their blood relatives — no one was allowed to contact their girlfriends or anyone else. That’s why many historians believe the most famous letter in Alcatraz history might be a hoax…
Every summer, dozens of triathletes undertake a 1.5 mile swim from Alcatraz to the San Francisco Bay. While this race is simply meant for sport, some use it as evidence supporting the most successful prison break in history.
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There was some serious chatter in the Alcatraz prison yard during the early months of 1962. Most inmates were content to quietly pass the time until their release, but three prisoners were desperate to get out. Luckily, they had a plan.
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John Morris met brothers Clarence and John Anglin during a previous prison stint in Atlanta; it seemed like providence when the three bank robbers were assigned to adjacent cells on The Rock. They agreed to smuggle a few special items out of the mess hall.
Spoons. On their own, these utensils wouldn’t do much good for tunneling. But a bit of sharpening turned them into handy picks that could chip away at the concrete walls. The cons’ plan would be slow, though that’s just how they wanted it.
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They heard about the so-called “Battle of Alcatraz” that erupted back in 1946, when a group of prisoners tried to take the jail by force. Once the guards overpowered them, this doomed attempt got everyone involved shot, executed, or locked up for life.
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Morris and the Anglins agreed that a shootout would be a one-way ticket to the grave. If their schemes went off without a hitch, the trio would make it off the island before anybody realized they were gone.
Hunched under their cell sinks, the conspirators worked to widen ventilation ducts into tunnels. Prisoners were allowed to play music at certain hours of the day, so Morris blasted his accordion to cover up the excavation noise.
The dig was slow going, but it gave the trio time to perfect the other parts of their plan. They collected supplies from various blocks of the prison, including a bag of hair trimmings from the barber.
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Each lock was a key ingredient for the most ingenious feature of their escape. Morris and the Anglins constructed papier-mâché models of their own heads, complete with real human hair. Hopefully, these sculptures would buy them a few more hours.
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On the night of June 11, the convicts made their move. They crawled through their tunnels, snuck through a little-used service corridor, and broke through a ventilation shaft in the roof. However, the metal grill made a loud clang when they pushed it aside.
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But the guards made nothing of it! All the prisoners appeared to be in their beds, thanks to the dummy heads that Morris and the Anglins had constructed! It wasn’t until the next morning that the guards discovered the ruse.
Alcatraz officials were in a frenzy as they retraced the escapees’ route. A prison who helped engineer the operation confessed that Morris and the Anglin brothers constructed a raft out of raincoats and were currently making their way to nearby Angel Island.
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A comprehensive search of the bay turned up a floating paddle, a tattered homemade life jacket, and fragments of the raft. Police deduced that the prison breakers must have drowned during the rough voyage. They assured the public not to worry.
Alcatraz, now a museum, continues to buy into that narrative. Tour guides retell the stages of the complex escape while maintaining that none of the three criminals ever made it back to the mainland. Not everyone is so sure, however.
John and Clarence Anglin’s family received a number of postcards over the years, purportedly from the fugitives. They could have been pranks, except the trend kept up. Their mother received an anonymous bouquet of flowers every Mother’s Day for the rest of her life!
Then there were the alleged sightings. An old pal of Morris claimed he encountered him in Maryland. Meanwhile, a family friend of the Anglins believed he spotted them during a vacation to Brazil. A photo of two men in South American resembling the brothers supported his story.
In fact, the FBI has followed these leads, investigating whether it was possible that the escape was successful. They’ve also released time-lapsed mugshots to the public to aid in their search, but to no avail. It seemed like a cold case until 2013.
A letter arrived at FBI headquarters, signed by one John Anglin. It spelled out the supposed truth of their post-prison lives, stating that all three fugitives lived until old age. John, real or fake, claimed to be the last living member, and he included a shocking request.
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He said that he had cancer and was willing to reenter the prison system for a year in exchange for medical treatment! FBI agents asked themselves if such a message was too good to be true.
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After handwriting analysts failed to establish a solid link between Anglin’s handwriting and this letter, the FBI concluded that the author was likely not authentic. On the other hand, they couldn’t disprove his identity outright.
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That letter could be the last possible piece of evidence in the famed escape case. We may never truly know if the convicts made it off of Alcatraz alive. The alleged Anglin letter, however, did eerily foreshadow a sinister bargain that many sick people are taking around the world.
Toshio Takata struggled to make ends meet. After moving into a halfway house, it got to the point where the 62-year-old had trouble buying supplies for his beloved art projects. This old dog would have to learn some new tricks if he wanted to survive.
Traditionally speaking, the Japanese treat their elders quite well. Old-fashioned standards oblige younger people to not only care for their parents and grandparents, but to treat them with the utmost respect.
In the modern age, however, more and more senior citizens like Toshio are feeling left behind. His family has more or less dissolved, and he’s grown estranged from his brothers, two ex-wives, and three children. Toshio only has himself.
Across the country, older Japanese citizens are unable to find a support system. There’s just so many of them. Over a third of the national population is now 60 or older, and the senior citizens have outnumbered the children for years.
With the number of seniors only increasing, Toshio saw some of his contemporaries lose just about everything. Even with pensions and benefits, they couldn’t afford food and housing. Some were even put out on the street. But Toshio found a solution.
Nowadays, Toshio lives comfortably. He’s got three square meals a day, plenty of staff on hand to provide for his every need, and plenty of similarly aged friends to spend time with. It all started with a bicycle.
This bicycle didn’t belong to him. Toshio found it parked on a street corner in Hiroshima, and he just rode off with it. But this was no mere joy ride; Toshio knew exactly where he was headed.
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He rode to the nearest police station. Approaching the front desk, the old man calmly informed the authorities that he stole the bicycle. With no other choice, the police cuffed the seemingly harmless senior and brought him in.
The court sentenced him to one year in prison for petty theft. Did Toshio have an uncharacteristic lapse in judgment? Had he been hit with a wave of remorse once he hopped on the bike?
Nope. The theft, the arrest, the sentence — it had all been part of his plan. With no criminal history, in the Japanese prison system, he enjoyed the stability behind bars.
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So he served his year worry free for the most part. Then, once he got out, something peculiar happened: Toshio threatened women in the park with a knife.
He now claims that he didn’t mean any harm, he simply wanted the police to lock him up once again — this time for a longer period of time. A single year wouldn’t cut it anymore.
Now 69-years-old, Toshio wakes up in a cell every morning, but he does so with a purpose. He has a place where he belongs and all the time in the world to work on his art. Strangely enough, he’s not the only one to enjoy life behind bars.
In a trend that no social scientist saw coming, one in five Japanese inmates is 60 years or older. And these aren’t hardened criminals either.
The police nab nearly all these gray-haired cons for minor offenses. Many shoplift from stores, either as a means to feed themselves for free or to get caught on purpose. With Japan’s relatively severe penalties for theft, they all end up incarcerated.
This is no short-term solution for seniors, either. Roughly a quarter of them commit another offense soon after their release, leading to an even longer sentence. But why is prison such an attractive place for them to spend their golden years?
Like Toshio, most older inmates will claim economic reasons. Besides living for free behind bars, they can still continue to collect their pensions. They’ll have some nice savings once free. However, this may not tell the whole story.
According to Kanichi Yamada, director of a rehabilitation center, elderly inmates’ real motivation may be loneliness. He theorizes that they usually have lost their loved ones and fail to rediscover their places in mainstream society.
Regardless of why Japanese seniors are seeking out cells, jails have drastically evolved to accommodate them. Facilities and events have become more accessible to older demographics, and specialized guards have joined to help care for these prisoners.
For now, prison life remains more comfortable than freedom for Toshio and his ilk. They feel certain that there’s nothing for them outside the jail walls. However, a large segment of senior inmates do have one key difference from Toshio.
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An increasing number of them are women! Although women across the board are statistically less likely to commit a crime than men, female seniors who live alone are particularly affected by poverty and isolation.
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Prison offers struggling women a way to escape their burdens and anxiety, though none of them process their strange path the same way. While some freed inmates admit they feel guilty, others look back on their incarceration with nostalgia.
With the population of senior citizens on the rise, Japan will have to find a more efficient way to care for them. If they do not enact radical reforms, the Japanese will find themselves in a prison of their own making. Unfortunately, loneliness and isolation drives seniors to act out all over the globe.
As he walked across the Redding, California, soil for the first time, Kevin Burns’ heart filled with anticipation. He thought about new friends, career prospects, romantic possibilities. But it was his elderly neighbor that won most of his attention.
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Though her house seemed like it could hold a full family, 68-year-old Ruth Ratliff lived next to Kevin all by herself. Odder still, she seemed to never spend any time inside the house. She was always in her parked car, eating.
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It didn’t take long for Kevin to puzzle out the reason why: Ruth lived inside her car. She stocked up on all the necessary supplies and set up a bed of sorts in the backseat. She even kept her small dog in there with her.
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But at the same time, Ruth’s car was totally broken down. Not only could she not drive anywhere, but she also couldn’t even turn on the heat during cold nights. Concerned, Kevin felt obliged to step in. Why didn’t she just move back into her house?
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For a long time, Ruth remained coy about why she avoided her home like the plague. Kevin’s repeated questioning eventually brought the truth to light: “My home has become a dump,” Ruth admitted, “because my best friend died, and I lost my mind.”
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Ruth then made a request of Kevin: could she go inside her home and find a misplaced photo of her parents? She feared she would forget what they looked like. Kevin accepted the quest. opened the house’s, front door, and…walked into an absolute nightmare.
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“My home has become a dump” didn’t do justice to the abysmal state of Ruth’s house. While it clearly was a nice residence years ago, it was now unlivable. A rancid odor made it hard to breathe, and trash and human waste covered the floor of every room.
It became evident that Ruth was a hoarder, incapable of parting with any kind of object. Without some outside help, Kevin realized that Ruth could never return to a normal life. Just as he was about to give up and duck out for fresh air, a strange detail caught his eye.
A makeshift shelf leaned against one wall, and it looked like there was an entire room behind it. Was there a chance that this hidden room escaped the noxious effects of Ruth’s hoarding? Kevin slid the shelf over and entered the black space.
Curiously, as Kevin’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw what looked like a child’s bedroom. He peered at some old photographs taped to the wall. There was no sign of Ruth’s parents, but he did see a photo of some kids that looked like Ruth.
Kevin was about to give up when he spotted the corner of a photo sticking out from the cabinet — it was just the one Ruth asked for! He headed for the door to share the good news until he came across the biggest problem of all.
Gazing up at the ceiling, Kevin noticed many of the rooms were overrun with black mold. While trash could be cleaned up, this poisonous fungus made the house uninhabitable. There was so much of it, Kevin wondered if it could spread to other houses.
Ruth was heartbroken to hear about the decay of her once-beloved home, though she at least agreed to call the fire department. They soon arrived with a truckload of equipment. As it turns out, however, they were not aiming to save the house.
The fire chief explained that the black mold presented a toxic risk that they needed to wipe out immediately. As they set up a perimeter of flames around the condemned house, Kevin held Ruth’s hand and laid out a plan for the future.
Together, the neighbors watched Ruth’s house go up in flames. Although he knew it was for the best, Kevin felt her pain at all the memories burning inside of it. All the evidence of Ruth’s past was gone. Only the woman herself could reveal the truth now — if she wanted to.
Before he could delve into the mysteries of the strange photographs and the hidden room, however, Kevin needed to make accommodations for his aggrieved neighbor. He lacked the money to put her up in his own place, and so he set up a GoFundMe page.
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Amazingly, the community rallied around Ruth, and a local non-profit reached out to Kevin. They ran a nursing home for the elderly, where Ruth could have a real roof over her head for the first time in years. Unfortunately, they couldn’t take in Ruth’s chihuahua.
But Kevin took care of that. He adopted the small dog, and the two of them visited Ruth each week. Over time, Ruth settled back into a regular enough life to regain her mental stability. She began to share the secrets that she was so desperate to hide from the world.
Over a cup of coffee, Kevin finally learned the truth behind the secret bedroom: It didn’t belong to a son or daughter, as Ruth never had kids. It was her own childhood bedroom! After her parents and husband passed away, leaving Ruth alone, she sealed it up. She couldn’t bear to face all the memories and dreams it represented.
Ruth could never go back to her old life; that much was clear. But in her new home, she rediscovered comforts and friendships that she would have forsaken if she stayed alone in her car. Thanks to Kevin’s foray into her house, Ruth’s hopes for the future are burning bright.