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

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.

In 1916, Stroud knifed a guard to death at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, over a dispute about visiting privileges for Stroud's mother. He served the next 43 years in solitary confinement.

Stroud began studying birds at Leavenworth and wrote two heralded scientific books on bird diseases, which led to a 1962 movie about his life called "Birdman of Alcatraz" starring Burt Lancaster.

"Here is a guy with a third-grade education who somehow educated himself to write books on birds that were followed around the world," said his lawyer, Dudley Martin, 80. "My father raised gamecocks and he used Stroud's book when they got sick."


After his transfer to Alcatraz in 1942, Stroud turned his attention to researching the history of federal prisons and interviewing inmates and guards.

"Nobody else had written this stuff and the federal prison system did not want it out," Martin said.

Stroud spent years trying to get his book published, finally suing the U.S. Bureau of Prisons in 1962 to allow publication.

But Stroud died in 1963 before the lawsuit was resolved. And it took 21 years for Martin, the administrator of Stroud's will, to get legal possession of the manuscripts from probate.

Martin's secretary put Stroud's hand-written notebook manuscripts into type, more than 2,000 pages single-spaced. Martin sent the book to three New York publishers, all of whom turned it down, concerned about libel suits.

The manuscripts went into storage at Martin's house in the mid-1980s. Some 30 years later, the people named in the book have died and the statute of limitations on libel has expired, Martin said.

In the first volume, Stroud also reveals that he was gay, though he had married a woman while in prison who was his partner in a bird-related business on the outside.

More of his writings are to come, with the volumes tracing the rise and degeneration of the prison reform movement and how sex in prison contributed to character destruction.

Stroud spent the last four years of his life at the federal medical center prison in Springfield. Martin took over as his lawyer after Stroud's transfer from Alcatraz and met him only once, in court.

"He was a great big, tall man," Martin said. "I had to look up at him."

Martin said Stroud would be pleased to know the public is finally able to read his account of the prison system.

"He'd be honored," Martin said. "He would feel appreciated for what he had done."

(Editing by Gunna Dickson)