Celtic rope image

Theresa Breslin


As a person who feels uncomfortable in enclosed spaces a tour of a former maximum security prison wasn’t my first choice for an enjoyable day out in San Francisco. But my husband was keen to go so we took the short boat ride out into the bay past the sea lions to Island of Alcatraz. I thought I might just wander around the recreational and workshop areas, but as we landed we came across a bookstand where a former prison officer was signing copies of his memoirs detailing his life as a young prison guard in Alcatraz. I bought a copy and while chatting to this very courteous older gentleman I asked if he’d met any of the more infamous prisoners, to which he replied casually,

A cell in Alcatraz ‘Well, there was the Birdman.’

I imagine the antennae of every writer would have been set aquiver hearing that.

Really?’ I said. ‘That must have been interesting…’ [Voice rising at end and tailing off expectantly.]


‘Oh.’ I said. [Pregnant Pause. Encouraging Smile.]

He was extremely generous with his time, telling me the less than savoury aspects of prison life and of the Bird Man, adding at the end,

‘Of course he didn’t have birds when he was here in Alcatraz.’

‘He didn’t?’

‘No. He wasn’t actually the Bird Man of Alcatraz. He had the birds in his previous jail, Leavenworth. But they just ignored that when they were making the movie. It don’t sound so good, does it? Birdman of Leavenworth.’

I agreed it definitely didn’t have the same ring to it.

‘He wasn’t very nice either. He was one I couldn’t feel sorry for.’

‘You felt sorry for these guys?’

‘Oh yeah. Some of them were real bad boys. But others, well…’

Theresa on a visit to Alcatraz I decided that I’d go inside. Something was fluttering in my mind. I was less intrigued by the high profile inmates than the hapless casualties of society. What about those “others”. Who were they? How did they end up in the most notorious prison in the world?

Entering the main Cell Block. [Deep breath. I can do this. Overcome Fear-of-Enclosed-Spaces by Incoming Story Signal to Brain]

Oh Great Galloping Galoshes! There are so many bolts and bars and locks and heavy metal doors with keys and padlocks and chains and shackles and, and,

Quick! Grab earphones and ram on head.

It’s a real ex-con talking! How he hadn’t meant to get in trouble, as a young man he fell in with the wrong crowd, got carried away by the moment. Lying on his cot bed he listens to the mournful honking of the sea lions in the bay and at New Year the sound of revelry being carried across the water. He remembers his childhood.

Listening to this I walk the bleak echoing corridors, sit in one of the small cells and stare out through the metal bars. On my way out I look at the watchtowers and the coils of heavy duty barbed wire and say,

‘I’m not surprised no one ever managed to get out of here.’

‘Some did,’ says the tour guide.

‘Convicts escaped from Alcatraz?’ I ask in surprise.

‘Not escape, exactly,’ he replies.

A year or so later the specialist publisher, brilliant Barrington Stoke, phoned and asked if I could write a short book with a direct storyline in a straightforward style that would be of interest to teenagers.

Oh, could I? I know that Barrington Stoke books are incredibly popular especially with our reading-challenged children and EAL students. Librarians, Learning Support teachers, those who work with young offenders can’t get enough of them. So I’m thinking of the subject matter. I’m thinking of a young man lying in his cell. I’m thinking of a break-out attempt. And there’s a story vibrating in my head.


Theresa Breslin.