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March 7, 2010

Alcatraz: The True End of the Line

by Darwin E. Coon (signed!)

While on a trip to the US we found ourselves in the fantastic city of San Francisco, where I was able to fulfil a lifelong ambition and visit America’s most notorious prison, Alcatraz. The prison has always held me spellbound – ever since I saw Clint Eastwood tuck that painted dummy head under the blanket! – and standing in San Francisco bay, looking across the water and seeing the legendary Alcatraz for the first time, I was truly awestruck.

On the island that day was former inmate Darwin E. Coon, who spent four years at Alcatraz. On the day of our visit he was there for a book signing. I spoke to him briefly, shook his hand and asked him what he’d been in for. “Armed robbery,” he said, as I realised – born again Christian or not – that the old guy before me had been one dangerous, unscrupulous dude at one time, and there I was, awestruck again!

The first half of Darwin’s book is dedicated to his early years – although he was only 26 when he was convicted and sent to The Rock – and the bank-robbing escapades which saw him held first by the California Youth Authority, then the Federal Reformatory El Reno, Nevada State Penitentiary and, finally, the Federal Penitentiary at Leavenworth.

Darwin E. Coon was one of the last groups of inmates to leave the island when the prison finally closed. He recounts his day-to-day struggles to survive, his work in the kitchen at Alcatraz and how he was there during the escape attempt by the Anglin Brothers and Frank Morris made famous in the movie Escape from Alcatraz – in fact, he provided tools as well as one of the raincoats which would be used to make a rubber raft and life jackets. He also talks of a lesser-known escape attempt by two guys named Scott and Parker – where Scott actually made it to the shore in San Francisco before being recaptured…

After release, Darwin turned to God and eventually found peace, providing a home for scores of foster kids.

James’ out-of-five star rating: ***

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