U.S. prisons seen through the eyes of 'Birdman of Alcatraz'

Sun Mar 2, 2014 10:06am EST
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By Kevin Murphy

SPRINGFIELD, Missouri (Reuters) - The pages are brown, faded and stained, but the handwriting is meticulous and the words detail a 150-year history of the U.S. prison system through the eyes of one of its most famous inmates.

Robert Stroud, known as the Birdman of Alcatraz for his painstaking study of birds while in federal prison, wrote a four-part book about brutality, sex, bribery and what he saw as the monumental failure of prisons to rehabilitate inmates.

Part I "Looking Outward, A Voice from the Grave," has recently been published in E-book form.

Stroud's book about prison life, totaling more than 2,000 pages, languished in a basement long after his death in 1963, with publishers concerned about libel balking at a book that named brutal guards and supposedly on-the-take wardens.

"To sadistic-minded persons, helplessness is always an invitation to cruelty," Stroud wrote.

The stacks of manuscripts stored at Stroud's former lawyer's house in Springfield, Missouri, have been converted into the book "Looking Outward: A History of the U.S. Prison System from Colonial Times to the Formation of the Bureau Prisons."

"If there is anybody who could write about federal prisons, it was him," said J.E. Cornwell of Springfield, the book's publisher.

Stroud entered federal prison in 1909 at age 19 after being convicted of manslaughter for killing with his bare hands a man in Alaska who allegedly beat up a prostitute. He spent the next 54 years in four different federal facilities.   Continued...

Dudley Martin looks at handwritten manuscripts written by Robert Stroud at his home in Springfield, Missouri, February 12, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Murphy