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You Can't Judge a Book by Its Cover
Sitting on the hard, itchy cot has become very old. I don’t know what to do with myself. Sometimes, late at night, when it’s pitch black and not even the moon can shine through, I take a penny and throw it around my cell. I then spin myself around three times and attempt to look for it. I sound crazy, but I’m just another average Alcatraz inmate. My name is Carlton Wiggins formally known as inmate 1577 here at The Rock.
The only difference between myself and the other inmates is that I didn’t do anything to get here. I am an average human being with a sane mind unlike the rest of these senseless people. I am seventeen years old and I am already at Alcatraz. Being the second youngest inmate has made me quite an interesting topic to others. The youngest inmate, Clarence Carnes is sixteen and he is a murderer. He is the only inmate that I speak to, when given the privilege during recreational time and breaks during work.
“Never ask why someone is here, never look anyone straight in the eye, never get within five feet of someone.” Clarence instructed me. I slowly pulled myself a little farther away from Clarence.
I had only fulfilled four months of my ten-year sentence and I already was counting the days till I left
Each day is exactly the same. Wake up is at seven where we must clean our selves and our cells such as making our beds. Twenty minutes later, a bell is rung telling us to stand outside our cells (quietly of course), as the guards walk us to the mess hall. This is always the scariest part of the day, meal times. Being around thieves, murderers, kidnappers, and back robbers with sharp utensils around. I don’t know about you, but I sure didn’t want to be near anyone who has the mind of a killer within reach of a knife. I have lost much weight at Alcatraz, but not because they don’t feed us. The saying here is: "Take what you like, eat what all that you take." Most inmates, including me, choose not to risk not finishing their meal, and eat lightly. At the end of breakfast, the guards count exactly how many knives, forks, and spoons are left and compare it to how many were given. Good to know they trust us…
After surviving breakfast, we get ready for work. Luckily I am not doing such difficult work as I was put in laundry. On the not so lucky side, I was partnered with a crazy man. Robert “the birdman” Stroud. I don’t know much, but I try to keep my distance. I personally do not know the proper etiquette when conversing with an Alcatraz inmate, so work time was always awkward.
“So, what did you do to get here?” I questioned, instantly remembering what Clarence had told me. Big mistake. He looked at me with piercing eyes and grunted. Clearly not a friendly murderer. I wondered what he thought of me, just a pale, scrawny looking kid. I wasn’t one of them.
The social life that occurs, when we are permitted, is much like that of a high school. I of all people would know that, considering I was doing well at mine before being sent here. After realizing this, I doubted I would be swimming with the sharks but rather the baby shrimp. Clarence, however, is much like a shark. Clarence tends to stray towards the dangerous crowd consisting of Bernie Coy, Joe Crezter, and Sam Shockley. Like any other social scene, there are always the followers. The followers were Miran Thompson, Marvin Hubbard, and the infamous Clarence Carnes.
While looking for my penny, like I have been doing for the past few months, I thought about my arrest.
I was walking home from work at the ice cream shop on the street near my barber shop at night, when I heard four gunshots. I didn’t know what to do, so I ran. Ten minutes into my sprint, I was stopped by the police.
“Hands where I can see them!”.
I froze “Officer, I didn’t…”
“You have the right to remain silent and anything you say can and will be used against you.” I immediately shut my mouth. While on the way to the San Francisco state prison, I overheard the officers conversing with each other.
“Do you think this is him?”
“The Phantom Killer? Could be, four gunshots and the only one on the scene.” I read about this guy in the paper. He was a serial killer who only committed his attacks late at night. Shows me to stay out late after curfew. He always escaped the scene before getting caught.
I began to think about what I had heard on the radio. “Phantom Killer sent to Alcatraz” “Phantom Killer strikes again while in Alcatraz.” If I had been accused of being the Phantom Killer, and there had just been another killing while I’m in here, then I must be getting out soon.
Suddenly, I heard a screech. It was very late at night and I was really scared. Joe Cretzer opened my cell door, motioning for me to follow. Knowing I probably shouldn’t, an Alcatraz inmate with a gun can be very persuasive. Once I realized what was going on, I didn’t know if it was too late to back out. These top sharks were planning an escape. Bernie was covered in axle grease and was in the midst of climbing the Gun Gallery. From a distance I saw a bag hanging from his mouth. Searching for other inmates, I noticed Clarence. I dashed to him and asked him what was going on. He told me not to worry and just to keep on look out. I looked back at Bernie and saw what he was doing. He had created a bar- spreader from toilet fixtures and was putting it to use. He spread the bars about ten inches apart. Thinking to myself that there was no way he could possibly squeeze through, he proved me wrong and painfully did. Turns out, he had been eating just enough to survive so that he could squeeze through.
I was sweating, I didn’t want to be part of any escape. Do you know how many people have tried to escape? Fourteen. Do you know how many have survived/succeeded? Zero. I’ll admit Bernie’s plan was rather sophisticated and clever but clearly, the guards have a 100% success rate. The other inmates began to chuckle. I looked up at Bernie and saw that he had just strangled a guard to unconsciousness with his own necktie. I didn’t see the humor in that. He began to send down guns to us all. That’s when it became intense. There were only enough guns for six out of us seven. I willingly gave up the privilege of having a gun. This was not because I was scared, it was because I didn’t want to have to use it.
Bernie began searching for the keys to the recreation yard. He could not find them. Meanwhile, the rest of them had trapped nine guards in two cells. I knew where the key was. One of the guards trapped in the cells concealed the key in the toilet. He knew I saw and he almost began to cry but was confused when I chose not to say anything. I saw him mouth to me the words “thank you,” and in return I nodded.
Flashing lights infiltrated the scene along with loud sirens. Off duty guards were forced to help take back the prison from us desperate convicts. Cretzer, being cheered on by Shockley and Thompson, began shooting inside the cells. Two officers were pronounced dead later that evening. As more and more guards were thrown into the scene, Shockley and Thompson scurried back to their cells thinking of a plan to explain their involvement. I contemplated doing the same, however, I thought the officer who hid the key would help me out. I looked back into the cell and my eyes froze in place. A bullet to the chest. He lay there bleeding. My first plan had failed before it ever went into action. The officer had been killed. I took a deep breath and went back to my cell. While on the way back, Clarence yelled “him too, Wiggins was apart of this.” Great friend he is. Who knew these so called friends here at Alcatraz would turn out to stab you in the back? That could be taken as a literal term but in my case, thankfully it wasn’t.
We were all thrown in the segregation cells for the next week until they figured out what to do. I was visited by a lawyer my parents had hired.
“Mr. Wiggins, how do you do?”
“Well, not so great.”
“I’ve studied your case and I have good news.” The lawyer began to tell me how the Phantom Killer was found (again) and thrown in a state jail for the time being. I wondered why he wasn’t immediately thrown into Alcatraz like I was.
“Anyway, the best news is, you’re getting released.” I was euphoric. But as I was walked back to my cell, I realized that I was not going to be released due to the fact that I was a part of the “Battle of Alcatraz.”
The next day, the seven of us were woken up at 6 am and taken to a private room. Without even an explanation, they gave us the verdict. We were all sentenced to death. I froze.
Did they just say death? I was going to be killed? I couldn’t breathe. I thought about my parents, my life, especially the Phantom Killer. If I had a gun at that point, I would find that man and shoot him straight on. No mercy.
We were brought to San Quentin to be executed via gas chamber. This was all too much. I began to sob uncontrollably while tears landed on the rust of my handcuffs. I didn’t care what people thought anymore. I was a 17-year-old kid who was sentenced to death for an unfortunate sequence of events that were not my fault. We were brought straight to the chamber. It was white with a single chair sitting inside. It had straps attached to it. What was I supposed to be thinking? I knew this wasn’t supposed to be the end. Bernie was the first to go. He was strapped into the chair and the soon oxygen free chamber was locked. They asked him if he would like to say any last words and he replied, “I could have gotten away with it.” To speed up the process they told Bernie to take deep slow breaths. Just like that, he was gone. Next up was Joe Cretzer. He was more of a baby about it.
“Please, Please, I’ll do anything,” he begged and pleaded. They didn’t budge. They strapped him into the chair and the end was yet to come.
Once again, they came to get another one. Sam Shockley. I admired him for his courage and taking responsibility for his actions. He let them strap him to the chair without struggling.
“Any last words?”
A man’s last words say a lot about his character. Next was Miran Thompson. He was fast. I felt terrible having to stand here as these people were being killed. Marvin Hubbard was last before Clarence. He tried to run. Stupid idea. They caught him no doubt and threw him into the chair. They didn’t even give him a chance for last words.
Finally, Clarence was chosen. This meant, I was last.
“I was a bad kid for a while. Maybe not in jail at that point, but I was destined to end up here. I made mistakes my entire life.” Clarence walked forward a few steps and began to speak again.
“Look, the other five and I deserve what has been given to us but Mr. Wiggins here was forced to be a part of this scheme. Not to mention that he knew where the key was all along and chose not to tell any of us. Not only was he not a part of this, but he didn’t even do anything to get thrown in here.”
Gandhi once said “almost everything you do will seem insignificant, but it is important that you do it.” Some people only believe in the first part. Clarence didn’t know if what he said would make a difference. Clarence’s last words were “I’m sorry” and he was gone. If Clarence wasn’t a criminal or dead, he and I would have made great friends.
As I stepped up for my turn, I was not prepared for what was about to be said.
“Is this true son? Were you forced into this?
“Yes,” I replied.
“Did you know where the key was all along?”
“I saw a guard who was later killed hide it in the toilet of a cell. He knew I saw him, he even mouthed the words thank you. You can check, the key is still there.” The guards whispered to each other and began to clean out the chamber. I was confused. They began to walk me back on to the boat we were brought. Clarence’s words were significant to my life. I know he was a bad person but the man knew the difference between right and wrong.
Wait, how did he know about the key? He must have seen it too. Clarence could have made the whole escape go as planned. I couldn’t believe it. Goes to show that you can’t judge a book by its cover. A few months at Alcatraz can really change a person. As we reentered Alcatraz, My lawyer was already waiting for me. I was escorted by a guard to a small boat that would bring me off the rock.
I looked out into the water and saw another passing boat. It was headed for Alcatraz.