Friday, April 25, 2008
Alcatraz Inmate Darwin Coon
On some days at Alcatraz visitors get more than an audio tour: they get to meet former inmate Darwin Coon and Guard John Hernon.
But the opportunity to meet these living legends of one of the world's most infamous jails takes visitors by surprise. For no indication is given in advance that they will be there. Visitors only find out after they have landed on the Rock and are listening to the introductory talk on the quayside. The day I was there, John was seated almost anonymously at the information desk in the cell block, and Darwin was busy in the bookstore signing copies of his autobiography.
Darwin, a former bank robber, is now 75 years-old and one of only about ten surviving inmates. A small, softly-spoken figure in a brown jacket, he sat behind a desk wielding nothing more dangerous than a biro. Handguns and sawn-off shot guns are artefacts of the past.
I chatted to him as people came up to have their copies of his book, Alcatraz: The True End of the Line, signed. People were fascinated by him and also expressed admiration and sympathy, for just seeing him there was testimony to a man who had turned his life around.
How long were you in prison? one man asked.
'Fourteen years, seven months, 23 days. Four years here,' he repeats like a mantra.
'Well I'm glad you're out, sir,' said another man cheerfully.
'Not as glad as I am!' Darwin quipped back.
Yet another man slipped him a $20 dollar note 'for signing the book'.
Most people ask Darwin to dedicate the book to someone. His signing is precise: 'Darwin E - the 'E" stands for Evert - Coon,' followed by the number 1422 and the dates 1959-1963. He is careful to explain that the number, written using the symbol for the 'pound' sign, represents his Alacatraz prisoner number, and the dates are the years he spent there. If anything is to bring fame to him, not that he is seeking it, it lies in the fact that he helped in the preparation of the most outstanding escape of three men, on which Clint Eastwood's film, Escape from Alcatraz, is based.
Ask him what his most outstanding memory of life on the Rock is and he doesn't hesitate: 29 days in 'the hole'. The details are in his book: made to sit in a cell naked and cold in total darkness, being fed half-rations twice a day and no dessert. There was a five-inch hole in the floor for a toilet and sadistic guards limited water and toilet paper supplies.
It was his punishment for being caught with a knife tucked into his sock, one that he was carrying to protect himself from other inmates.
That afternoon, though, he said of himself, 'I was trouble from two-years-old. There was nothing that could save me.'
His life has certainly had a V-shaped trajectory. From temper-tantrumming toddler but also a child deserted by his mother, he slid down into a troublesome schoolboy, burglar, 'fence', expender of forged cheques, prison escapee, and an armed robber who finally raided a Las Vegas nightclub and banks. He was in and out of various youth custody facilities and prisons with some brutal experiences.
The greatest irony, though, is that Darwin was sent to Alcatraz from a Kansas prison, falsely accused of stealing tools. In an effort to coerce a confession, the Kansas guards savagely beat him over a period of 29 days. One of the remarkable things in the book is that he recounts this factually with no bitterness against the guards or anger at this unjust turn of events.
But as he finally landed with a bump in the hellish punishment 'hole' of Alcatraz, his life pivoted on faith in God. 'This place made a believer out of me,' he said, and he set his mind that he was 'never going to commit another crime.' Or, as he writes in his book: 'It was in the hole, naked and cold, that I began to talk to God, and first asked Him to help me. I know it sounds strange, but He answered me and I began to change.'
After the closure of Alcatraz, Darwin, who was one of the last group of men to leave, served out the rest of his sentence back in the Kansas prison. On his release, faced with the employment difficulty of being not just an ex-con but a long-standing Alcatraz ex-con, he wobbled and hit the bottle, becoming an alcoholic. But with the help of a friend, he went successfully into rehab, and his life went into ascendancy. He was given a job in property management by the same friend, began to attend church, became a committed Christian, met and married his wife, Marge, became a foster father to 94 children, 'Papa' to three half-sisters, a prison bible teacher with Chuck Colson's prison fellowship, and author.
What was the worst aspect of life on Alcatraz? I asked. 'No social time,' he said. Prisoners were kept in their cells for a minimum 16 hours a day with only brief periods in the mess, exercise yard, and on work placements when Darwin worked in the kitchen. Visitors were allowed for two hours on a Saturday and Sunday. By an amazing coincidence, some of Darwin's family including Darwin had previously moved to Oakland, a small town across the Bay within sight of the island, so his eldest sister, Alberta, visited him regularly, he told us.
Which other famous prisoners did he 'do time' with? He listed Robert Stroud, the Bird Man of Alcatraz, Alvin Karpis, the prisoner who held the record for length of time spent there, Mickey Cohen, West Coast mafia boss, Bumpy Johnson, Harlem gangster, and Joe Bananas, mafia boss, although he pointed out that he didn't know them all personally.
Neither was he overcome in attacks from other prisoners. 'I used these,' he said, briefly raising his fists.
Another visitor asked, 'What were you in for?'.
'Bank robbery,' said Darwin, and elaborated. He had successfully robbed four banks bagging about $120,000 dollars, a sum worth today over $1 million dollars, but got caught during his getaway from the fifth with the lucrative haul of $50,000.
What did you do with the money? continued the questioner.
'Spent it!.... that's why we were robbing a fifth,' said Darwin.
'How did you spend it?' an incredulous voice chipped in from behind my left shoulder.
'Pretty girls!' said Darwin. 'They cost a lot of money!'
I turned and discovered that the sharp-shooter was eleven-year-old Jeffrey - a great career in journalism obviously there for the taking.
Darwin explained that due to the vigilance of a small-town marshal, he and his friend's 'strange' car had been spotted outside the bank at night and reported to patrol police. Patrol cars ambushed them later. Darwin escaped only to be caught in a roadblock having begged a lift in a pick-up truck.
Visions of an accomplished bank robber waiting in queue to have his credentials checked floated into mind. I asked him how it felt to be caught like that. 'Felt kinda dumb. Get caught in a roadblock!' he said.
Does he meet up with other prisoners now? Since 1995 he has attended the annual August reunion for prisoners, guards and other staff who worked on the island, he said, but that the number of surviving prisoners has dwindled to about ten.
Touring Alcatraz on sunny days - this was my third visit in a few months - my impressions were mixed. The island is beautiful and covered with leisurely tourists, a breeding bird colony and wild flowers. By the cells the sun streams in through large, high windows. The audio tour, which records the commentary of real former prisoners, points out the surprising but true fact that the food was the best of any prison and also talks of the 'musical hour' when prisoners were allowed to play instruments. Darwin already played harmonium and learnt the guitar with the help of a music teacher inmate. There were also college courses available.
It can begin to take the edge off the imagined bleakness and brutality. 'How accurate is Alacatraz the Museum compared to Alcatraz the Prison?' I asked.
'The audio tour is very good, very accurate,' is Darwin's view, whose voice is one of the first on the audio tape after inmate Jim Quillen laments the loss of personhood through being known only as a number.
Darwin's contribution, given that at the time he was facing 80 years of imprisonment from a sentencing error later reduced on appeal, is: 'I figure I'm never going to get out. Yeah, I'm going to sit right here until I die.'
Pressed further on prison life, he said simply, 'It was very harsh,' and added, 'They didn't hurt my feelings one bit when they closed it up!'
Reading his book later there is a glimmer of things that wouldn't make for publication. The first priority for prisoners was to keep themselves from being assaulted by other prisoners, and the second was to keep from going crazy faced with confinement in cells only 5ft by 9ft for no less than 16 hours a day. Right at the beginning of his book Darwin writes: 'There were some truly terrible things that took place on that little island in San Francisco Bay.....You have to be constantly aware of everything that is going on around you, or you could wind up getting released early by going out the back gate in a pine box.'
Darwin spent almost three years writing his book, which was published in 2002. Sadly, his wife, Marge, died some years ago and for health reasons he has cut down on his speaking engagements. But he still attends his church in Sacramento, California, and visits the island 'six, seven, eight days' a month. Not simply as a story-teller but as a messenger of hope.
His book is a fascinating read with all sorts of extra info about the Rock and it's inmates. It is short with easy-on-the-eye type size and contains some lovely family photos. It is published by New Desmas Press, Sacramento.