Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Darwin Coon

The only ex-Alcatraz inmate who made it back to the Rock for the 75th Anniversary of it's opening as a federal penitentiary was 76-year-old Darwin Coon, a former bank robber who helped in the 'dummies' heads' escape of three men.

He was one of over 75 Alcatraz Alumni, the rest made up of former guards and residents, who returned for the day to give audiences and to meet people...see previous blog

'This island was a hell hole,' he said, standing in the dining room with sight of the kitchen behind barred doors where he used to work as a cook.

In the first of three public audiences that he held over the day, he gave a brief history of himself before turning it into a quickfire question and answer session:

He started his criminal career very young, was at Reformed School by the age of 12, and at 26-years-old, figured he would die in Alcatraz. He arrived on the Rock in 1959 and was one of the last group of prisoners to leave in February 1963, he told his audience.

Due to a sentencing error, Darwin entered Alcatraz not only with shackles on his hands and feet but the weight of an 80-year jail sentence on his young shoulders.

Why did he take the risk of helping in an escape attempt? I asked.

'Well, they were friends of mine,' he said of the Anglin brothers. He had got to know John and Clarence when they were in jail with him in the Leavenworth Prison in Kansas.

Does he still think, as he has written in his book and continued to say, that they and third inmate Frank Lee Morris survived the attempt?

'They got away from here. That's my opinion.' Their bodies were never discovered, he added.

If he were to devise an escape plan, how would he do it? someone else asked.

'I would do it the same way,' he said, by using dummies and escaping at night. It was nine hours before the men were discovered to be missing, whereas during the day they would be checked every 15 minutes.

How did he feel when Alcatraz closed?

He was 'glad'. The then Attorney General, Bobby Kennedy, closed it down because it was too expensive to run.

What was the worst part of his stay?

'You had no social time on this island.' It was worse, he explained, than other prisons because prisoners only had two hours out of their cells in the morning, and two hours in the afternoon.

The very worst of all was when he was sent to the isolation unit for 29 days as punishment for being found with a knife. Kept in a darkened cell - he added 'wearing a pair of boxer shorts' out of decency before a mixed audience - he struggled to keep warm and was fed only half rations twice a day plus no dessert.

He had made the knife with brass so it bypassed the 'snitch box', the metal detector, and was carrying it to protect himself from a prisoner who had tried to stab him, he said.

Of the inmate, Darwin said, 'He was just crazy, he was mental,' and 'he didn't get caught,' he added in answer to another question.

What does he think about prisons today?

'My belief is they need about 1,000 of these scattered throughout the US,' he said, meaning prisons that are strict. Today's prisons are too soft.

What was Darwin in for?

For robbing five banks. From the first four, he and others had netted $1 million in today's currency.

How was he caught?

In a road block, 45 miles down the road from the last bank.

Why didn't he stop at four?

'We were on the run from the law. We needed to keep running.' And the money he'd had, he'd 'spent on pretty girls!'

Does he believe in the death penalty?

'Yes. Sure.' There are hundreds of guys over there, he said, referring to San Quentin, sitting on Death Row, and the state isn't executing any of them. The task of keeping them behind bars is enormous and it costs so much money.

Were there any women inmates?

There were no women and no gangs, either

What terrible incidents did he see?

Two men get killed and dozens of guys cut up.

Was there anything good about Alcatraz?

'The only thing that was good about this island, they served good food.'

The meanest prisoner?

'Red' Hayes, who was transferred from the state prison of Massachusetts. He killed seven men, five with his bare hands.

What family did Darwin have?

Two sisters and a brother. One of his sisters used to visit him.

Did he have any hobbies in Alcatraz, like many of the prisoners?

'No hobbies.'

How does he spend his time now?

'I go visit people and hang round the house, whatever!' Live one day at a time, that was the strategy he used in D-Block - the isolation unit - he added.

Did he resent the guards?

'No. They were just here trying to make a living.'

Is he in contact with any of his foster children?

'I don't see them - they're in Iowa - but I hear from them all the time...especially when they want money!!!'

Darwin found faith in God while in Alcatraz. When he came out he became a committed Christian, married his now late wife, Marge, and became a foster father.

For 18 years he ran a 'safe home', he said, and fostered 94 children. 'We raised nine from babies', he added. 'Those were the best years of my life. Most of them (the children) are doing pretty good.'

Did he ever feel he shouldn't have been in Alcatraz?

'No, I put myself here,' he replied, this despite the fact that he was transferred from the Kansas jail for a false accusation of stealing prison tools.

How long has he been going back to Alcatraz? Since 1994 when he visited it with a niece. The Rangers discovered he was on the island and he's been going back ever since for events and to sign copies of his book.

Does he have any regrets?

'Yes, many, many of them, but there's not a thing I can do about it. They're all in the past.'

pics by Chris: Alcatraz barracks and the jetty where the boats dock; Darwin and his audience; the kitchen through the bars.

Darwin's lifestory see: http://lizinsanfrancisco.blogspot.com/2008/04/alcatraz-inmate.html

1 comment:

joe said...

very informative!