A writer's take on prisons and a historic prison break

Jan 18, 2012

Local author Alan Jacobson writes thrillers, including a popular series that follows the exploits of FBI profiler Karen Vail. His most recent book in the series, Inmate 1577, takes place in San Francisco – specifically, Alcatraz. Jacobson did extensive research on prison life in the 1960s, particularly at the Federal Penitentiary at Alcatraz.

ALAN JACOBSON: The Inmate 1577 is told in two tracks. One is, the book opens in 1950s, where this man comes home and finds his wife murdered and his young son there, sitting in the kitchen with the dead mother. That's a very emotional scene to open with. I did it for a number reasons, but most of which because you need to continue reading. You need to find out what happened to this kid. The father comes home, detectives come, and he's arrested for the murder.  He ultimately is found not guilty, but it was very high profile trial, a very violent crime. He can't escape the fact that people associate him with the murder. So, not guilty is not the same as being innocent.

He cannot get a job. He moves to another town and still can't get a job. Ultimately, after they've exhausted the money, and he can no longer look after his son, he turns to bank robbery. It's a non-violent act, he figures, but it can get him some money. Suffice it to say things spiral out of control and he ends up in Leavenworth.

I ultimately contacted one of the original correction officers, who's still around and lives in San Francisco. We started talking and he was a font of information and knowledge. And when we went to the island together, that was really incredible. We would stand in a place and he would say, “This is where this guy got up and stabbed this other inmate and I jumped on him trying to get the knife away or the scissors away and I was stuck between them and blood all over…” And I'm standing the exact same spot where it happened 60 years ago.

RINA PALTA: Tell me a little bit more about this FBI agency or bureau that your character comes from and sort of what the job of a profiler is.

JACOBSON: Karen Vail is a part of the Behavioral Analysis Unit. It's gone through several name changes over the 19 years that I've been involved with it. Behavioral Analysis Unit – BAU – has stuck for long time now. So, that, I think, is safe as a name. It started in the 70s. Four founding father of profilers were responsible for doing much of the research on, I think, 32 violent criminals – mostly serial killers. There were a few mass murderers and bombers in there. They have interviewed these killers and they interviewed them in a way that they would be able to ascertain whether or not they are telling the truth. They matched against facts and asked circular questions to determine whether or not they were getting accurate information. They came from the behavioral sciences unit – which is the academic arm and the teaching arm – so these where agents who were knowledgeable in the field to begin with and knew how approach these criminals. That knowledge base became the blueprint of everything that came after that.

So what does the profiler do? When there is a violent crime,  everybody knows about the C.S.I.’s... Forensic scientists go to the scenes and look for hair, fibers, D.N.A., fingerprints, and things that they can collect, analyze at the lab, and it gives them, “Boom, this is the name of the killer.” A behavioral analyst does something completely different. They are not looking for the identity of the person. They are looking at the type of person that committed this crime. When they walk into a crime scene, this sounds weird, but they are seeing different things than a homicide detective or a forensic scientist is looking at. So, they'll come in and they'll see that a victim is laid this way in the bed or the victim is on a couch, the victim is covered or the victim is not covered. Why are all these things are being done?

PALTA: There is a lot of the book that takes place inside of the federal penitentiaries in Leavenworth and at Alcatraz. What did you learn from the people who were there during the 1950s and 60s that you really wanted to convey in this book?

JACOBSON: Prison life back then, while different to some extent because you've had a different mix of prisoners – bank robbery was very big then, drug dealing was actually big through the 50s and 60s, too – but there are other things, there are constants that are still true to this day. And that is kind of the prison way of life and the prison code of conduct. How one inmate relates, or must relate to each other. And if you think about it, there is a society, an internal society in prison. You have those who are the aggressors and those that are the ones who are aggressed against. If you don't establish a reputation pretty much right off the bat, you are the one that is abused. It's a very, very tough situation. I have tell you, one thing that I've learned talking with these correctional officers is that for the most part you are dealing with people who have no compunction about breaking the law and have no sense of morals. They are very difficult people to deal with and control.

If you are looking at it from that mindset, what do you do with these types of individuals? Honestly, prison is not the answer. You are just putting people into a situation –not all of them are there for life. They eventually are going to get out and they have had private tutoring sessions on how to be a better criminal, how to commit violent crimes, and on and on. Prison is one of those necessary things that I wish there was a better way, and I kind of express that in the novel. I tend to try to stay away from politics or political statements, although some leaked into

Inmate 1577. There were some digs against the California legislature, but that theme of what do you do with these prisoners does worm its way into, either directly said or under the surface, of just seeing what prison life is like.

PALTA: Tell me a little bit more about this Alcatraz escape and what you think happened. And whether these guys actually did survive and go on to live lives on the main land.

JACOBSON: We are talking about the 1962 Frank Morris and Anglin brothers escape, which was indisputably the most famous and most miraculous prison break ever in the history of the world probably. I thought it would be really cool, since I'm setting my character in the... It's starts in 50s and then moves through the 60s and then he lands on Alcatraz in 1961 and he is there for the 1962 escape. I just had to use this. It was such an incredible time in prison lore, so I integrated Walten McNally into this famous prison escape. As you intimated, I had to really be intimately knowledgeable of that escape. I wanted to be sure that I've got my details right.

Jolene Babyak, who was the daughter of the associate warden of that time, who was actually acting warden at the time of the escape, she has written a book, which is really a fabulous book, that takes it in terms of detail from beginning to end and also covers what went wrong. There are a lot of things – a lot of little mistakes. When I was talking with my buddy in the U.S. Marshal Service, he said that a prison break is usually the result of many small breakdowns and failures. It's usually not one thing. So I looked historically at this escape, and that exactly what has happened with this Alcatraz break.