Alcatraz Inmates’ Records Elusive
SAN BRUNO, Calif. (AP) _ Al Capone may have been one of Alcatraz’s most infamous prisoners, but so little is known about his time there that historians aren’t even sure which was his cell.
Just as mysterious is the fate of prison records on some of the most notorious criminals who did time on ``The Rock,″ the island prison just off San Francisco’s shore.
Most of the existing federal documents on Alcatraz are stored at the Pacific regional National Archives, a wealth of facts _ and frustration.
The file on George ``Machine Gun″ Kelly is missing key documents. Records on ``Birdman of Alcatraz″ Robert Stroud are all photocopies. There also are gaps in inmate files on escapes and virtually nothing on Capone.
``The records have either been purged, culled or stolen for people’s personal gains. I’d say all of the above. They’re probably sitting in someone’s attic right now,″ says Jolene Babyak, the daughter of a former Alcatraz administrator, who is writing a book on the 1962 escape portrayed in Clint Eastwood’s ``Escape From Alcatraz.″
One theory is that records were lost when the government closed the prison in 1963 without any major inventory. Others speculate that documents may have disappeared when American Indians took over the island from 1969 to 1971.
A number of historians blame the U.S. Bureau of Prisons for loaning the entire collection to David Ward, a Minnesota criminology professor who was given the papers in the late 1970s for research.
Some say the agreement was outrageous _ and unconscionable.
``You’ve got hundreds of researchers who needed these things over the years,″ says Linda McGregor Scott, a Memphis, Tenn., author who is writing a book on ``Machine Gun″ Kelly.
``All of this is American history that belongs to the citizens of this country, and it’s just not fair,″ she adds. ``It flabbergasts me that they would just let someone keep original documents for 15 years.″
Scott was so exasperated that she wrote to Janet Reno and lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, urging them to look into the matter. A Feinstein aide called Scott to tell her they would investigate.
In 1996, Ward began to gradually return the documents to the Bureau of Prisons, which in turn sent them to the archives in Northern California. Officials believe the government now has most of the papers, but can’t be sure.
Ward claims if it wasn’t for him there wouldn’t even be an Alcatraz collection. He says a research clerk gathered most of the files from U.S. prisons after the Department of Justice commissioned him to investigate the inmates’ post-Alcatraz lives.
The files were incomplete from the time he got them, Ward says. ``There had been souvenir hunting,″ he adds.
Clarence Lyons of the National Archives headquarters in College Park, Md., would only say that the records ``should not have been outside of federal custody.″ Bureau of Prisons officials did not return phone calls.
Historians say there’s no way to know if the missing papers will ever resurface.
Of the 50 or so pages in Capone’s file, only one relates to Alcatraz _ a copy of a typed Western Union message of an exchange between Mae Capone to warden James A. Johnston, about her husband, who was going insane from syphilis.
``Due to the rumors (I) would like to leave at once so I could be near my husband if anything should happen,″ Mrs. Capone wrote on Feb. 9, 1938, from her Florida home.
Johnston wrote back that the gangster, imprisoned for tax evasion, was ``quiet, communicative, cooperative″ and ``apparently comprehends his condition.″ He advised Mrs. Capone to wait for further notice.
Joel Gazis-Sax, who runs an Alcatraz Web site from his Palo Alto home, says the Western Union document isn’t as informative as it seems.
``It’s important, but it’s second-rate,″ Gazis-Sax says. ``It doesn’t reveal any new information on Al Capone. And it’s not even the original document; it’s a typed copy.″
What’s missing, Gazis-Sax says, are mug shots, original signatures, letters, neuropsychiatric reports and warden’s notebooks that would reveal the overall scope of Capone’s life as seen through the eyes of his jailers.
The documents _ however incomplete _ offer a window into Alcatraz. Every inmate had a file that included court documents, medical, parole and disciplinary records.
No detail relating to prison life was deemed too insignificant to preserve; the archives even include a memo from a warden giving his permission to order smaller softballs at the prisoners’ request.
``It was that arcane,″ says Babyak. ``When you see that that’s the level of minutiae, you begin to realize that when they don’t have any escape files, something’s happened to them.″
As for his complaining colleagues, Ward says: ``They don’t know how lucky they are to have a collection as intact as this is. We did this work all so that a bunch of bozos can have it and say they were shortchanged, and I resent that.″