Review: Inside Alcatraz: My Time on the Rock by Jim Quillen

Thursday 15 January 2015
Title: Inside Alcatraz: My Time on the Rock
Author: Jim Quillen
Publisher: Century
Publication Date: 15th January 2015
Pages: 384
Source: Review Copy
Rating: 5/5
Purchase: Amazon
It was 1942, and twenty-two-year-old Jim Quillen was on the run from San Quentin prison, where he'd been serving eighteen months for armed robbery. He thought he'd made a lucky escape - until he was caught and sentenced to forty-five years in the federal prison system, including ten years at the infamous Alcatraz.

Inside Alcatraz tells the story of the brutality and extreme regimentation that were a part of the daily life for the inmates of the island prison. They nicknamed it 'Hellcatraz', and Jim was about to find out why. He lived though it all, from solitary confinement and cramped, lonely cells to meeting Bob 'the Birdman' Stroud, and surviving the forty-six-hour bloody riot known as the Battle of Alcatraz.

In this moving memoir, Jim reflects on the ten hard years he spent on the island. He tells us of the hardships he suffered and the friendships he made on his long journey from desperation to redemption. 

Inside Alcatraz is the first book I have awarded five stars to in 2015, and I am doing so because it is one of the best books I have ever read. I feel as if I have lived every minute of Jim Quillen's life with him after reading this book. He is a truly remarkable man, and one I am full of respect for after reading this book. I have read a lot of True Crime books over the years, and anybody else who reads this genre will tell you, there's far more bad books than good. This one is incredible and I encourage everybody to pick it up and read it.

Jim comes across as a very grounded, humble man in the opening telling us all about his somewhat troubled upbringing. With an alcoholic mother and a father who at times struggled to cope, Jim found himself sent to various homes, before as a teenager running away from home more than once and getting into a bit of trouble. In the beginning it was normal teenage stuff, but some poor decisions led to Jim breaking the law one too many times and he was soon sent to a reformatory school, many escape attempts later - resulting in a small sentence becoming much longer - and Jim was a free man. Recognising that next time he would be sent to San Quentin, he made the decision to join the US Marines, in the hope that would put him on the straight and narrow, and allow him to better himself. Unfortunately those in charge found out about his criminal record, and he then, in his own words, 'fell into the depths of depression'. This in turn led to him committing armed robbery, finding himself in San Quentin before he escaped yet again, as a fugitive he felt he had nothing to lose, and a cross country chase soon found him captured by the FBI and sent to Alcatraz.

Even without Alcatraz this book is eventful, it taking some 100+ pages before we reach the notorious jail but it was once I reached the chapters surrounding Alcatraz that the book gripped me even more, to say the tales detailed within are shocking would be an understatement. Jim says that 'Alcatraz was designed and built to be a maximum-security and minimum-privilege facility. In reality it went far beyond this and became a prison where the sole purpose was to degrade, deprive, humiliate, and break the inmates physically, mentally, and spiritually, if possible. In many cases, it was remarkably successful'. He goes on to discuss the prison's inception, how prisoners are introduced to life at Alcatraz and its many rules and regulations and also what the prison officers were like. Jim then says that 'whilst it is true this prison houses violent men, many of whom had killed during the commission of their crimes, they were still human beings - a fact that seemed to be forgotten once incarcerated at Alcatraz'. He then goes into a lot more detail about his time in the prison, from the early years through to the world famous Battle of Alcatraz, there was an almost cinematic quality to these chapters and it felt almost like a film. There are many tales I enjoyed reading in this book, some shocked me, some made me laugh but really it's best for readers to discover them for themselves rather than me reel them off here. It's important to note that Jim does highlight the positives, for example the guards that did help, and the guards that carried out their job to the best of their abilities, rather than simply being critical of the whole system.

Often there's the question of how much is true when a criminal writes a book about a prison, yet the history of Alcatraz is well documented and so there's not much to question here. Some people are obviously born criminals, but some are victims of circumstance. Jim is one such person. We are all responsible for our own decisions, and Jim holds his hands up and admits to all of his mistakes, never glossing over anything or passing the blame onto somebody else (unless that blame was deserved, which it is a couple of times in the book). He's very honest all the way through, and very evaluative about what led him to make those choices, and how they changed him as a person. In fact when talking about his thought processes at the time of his crimes, he was actually thinking that if he was caught he would hold his hands up and blame nobody but himself. I did wonder then why he would prefer to escape from prison and be on the run living as a criminal rather than serve 12 more months in San Quentin, to think all of what he experienced wouldn't have happened had his desire for freedom not been so strong. You could also say though that the life he went on to live after Alcatraz, would also not have happened.

It really is so much more than a book about Alcatraz, and I have a million and one thoughts running around in my head that I'm struggling to put into words. It's also a story of times gone by, the kind of policing described in this book is now surely a thing of the past. It's an absolutely compelling read, and one that has consumed me over these past two days. The fact he managed to turn his life around, and find happiness with a wife and children, even becoming a tour guide when Alcatraz became a tourist destination, is quite remarkable and it is the final chapter, about him leaving prison and his life after that which was one of my favourites. Some might say a criminal is a criminal, let them rot but in his latter years at the jail the hard work is evident and it's a shame that a man who appeared in this book as quite clever, led the life he did but if this book shows anything it's that no prisoner is beyond rehabilitation. Sadly Jim passed away some time ago, but his legacy lives on and his story is definitely worth reading for True Crime fans, or readers of nonfiction in general. It's certainly one of the best I have ever read in the genre, and I very much enjoyed it.

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