A review of the 1962 film
Directed by John Frankenheimer
Starring Burt Lancaster and Karl Malden
Based on the book by Thomas E. Gaddis
One of my favorite movies of all time is the Birdman of Alcatraz. The theme of the film is the contrast between the horrors of the prison system in this country, and the potential of even the most hardened prisoners to regain their dignity. I’ve looked at the available information about the true-life character of Robert Stroud. Looking at this information makes the true-life story even more compelling than the film.
Background to the story
Robert Stroud ran away from home at the age of thirteen because of an alcoholic and abusive father. At the age of nineteen he confronted someone who assaulted the woman he lived with. A struggle ensued, and Stroud acknowledged that he murdered his companion’s assailant.
We might keep in mind a few things about this incident that occurred Alaska in 1909. In those years Alaska was a part of the “wild west.” Personal conflicts often lead to gunfire.
A newly appointed judge named E.E. Cushman presided over the murder case of Stroud. This so-called judge wanted to make a name for himself as someone who would not tolerate criminal activity. Since Alaska was not a state at this time, Cushman acted as federal judge and jury. He convicted Stroud of manslaughter and sentenced him to twelve years in prison.
A double standard of justice
We might consider that at this time thousands of Black people had been lynched in this country, and the government almost never prosecuted these murderers. This trial also came after the United States effectively stole the Philippines from the people of that nation. This war resulted in about 250,000 deaths.
The hundred-year war by the U.S. government against Native Americans concluded in the massacre at Wounded Knee. During this war, top officials of the U.S. government called for the complete extermination of all Native Americans. Clearly, all of these murders were perfectly legal in this country. Therefore, when judges who represent the United States claim they are for law and order, they are merely stating that they will prosecute some crimes and not others.
Eugene Debs was a socialist who lived during the same years as Stroud. Debs served time in prison for supporting striking workers and for giving a speech opposed to World War I. Debs had this to say about federal judges:
“There is something wrong in this country; the judicial nets are so adjusted as to catch the minnows and let the whales slip through, and the federal judge is as far removed from the common people as if he inhabited another planet.”
The horrors of prison life
From his first days in prison, Stroud was justifiably enraged by the regulations prison guards forced him to obey. One of the prison guards, Andrew F. Turner, routinely beat prisoners for minor infractions. Turner prevented Stroud from seeing his brother who travelled a long distance for a visit. This action by Turner was a response to a minor infraction.
A struggle ensued because of this issue and Andrew F. Turner lost his life. Apparently there was at least one witness who was willing to testify that Stroud acted in self-defense. This witness was a prisoner who was not allowed to testify.
There were a series of trials that charged Stroud with murder. In one, Stroud was found guilty and given life in prison. He appealed that sentence. Against the wishes of Stroud, his lawyers acknowledged that he committed manslaughter. He was convicted of murder again and sentenced to death. The Supreme Court supported this verdict.
Stroud’s mother appealed to President Wilson who commuted his sentence to life in prison. Wilson’s Attorney General Alexander Mitchel Palmer saw to it that Stroud would spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement. Palmer also was known for his “Palmer Raids,” where he rounded up hundreds of immigrant workers for deportation.
At this point in his life Stroud might have felt that his life was over. Yet he began to take correspondence courses, used the library, and learned to draw. He earned some money by making post cards. He gave his earnings to his mother.
Then, during one day when he was taking his one-hour walk alone in the prison yard, he discovered a fallen nest of sparrows. Burt Lancaster in the film Birdman of Alcatraz gave a compelling performance of how these birds began to transform the life of Robert Stroud.
Stroud began to read all he could about the care of birds. Lacking basic tools, Stroud managed to build cages for his birds by joining every piece together by hand. Eventually, Stroud attained some parakeets, learned to breed his birds, and sold them.
The prison authorities had a good reason for allowing Stroud to keep his birds. Solitary confinement is the most severe punishment a prisoner will endure. For this reason the section of the Leavenworth Prison reserved for solitary confinement was a place where the frustration of prisoners erupted.
When Robert Stroud introduced his birds into this section of the prison, there were significantly less conflicts with the guards. In fact, prison officials conducted tours of the solitary wing to show how well they controlled the prisoners.
Eventually, Robert Stroud attained a microscope and became an expert in all facets of the care of birds. With only a third grade education, he published two books on the subject and became known as a leading ornithologist in the world. When his birds began dying of a then incurable disease, Stroud invented a cure. This cure would save the lives of thousands of birds whose owners used Stroud’s treatment.
The battle for Stroud’s birds
Clearly Stroud became a completely different person from the one who first entered the prison system. Given this reality, a rational person would think the penal authorities would have learned something from Stroud’s transformation. This was not the case. Prison authorities made a concerted effort to take away Stroud’s birds and send him to the prison called Alcatraz.
Although he was in solitary confinement, Stroud launched a temporarily successful campaign that allowed him to keep his birds.
Della Mae Jones was intrigued by Stroud’s writings on birds. She visited him in Leavenworth, and worked to promote a business where he sold birds and cures for the diseases of birds.
When the prison authorities attempted to take way Stroud’s birds, Jones and Stroud’s mother circulated a petition demanding that Stroud be able to keep his birds. 50,000 supporters signed this petition. The prison authorities not only allowed Stroud to keep his birds, they gave him an additional cell where he could do his work.
The authorities made another attempt to send Stroud to Alcatraz. Stroud found an old law on the books that prevented sending prisoners out of the state who were married to someone living in Kansas. Della Mae Jones agreed to marry Stroud and again the prison authorities were stymied.
Finally, in the middle of the night, the prison authorities came into Stroud’s cell and transferred him to the prison at Alcatraz. Clearly Stroud had become rehabilitated from the person he was when he entered prison. Clearly Stroud’s work with birds was proving to be important to thousands of people.
However, the government of the United States has a history of lynch mob justice. Once someone is convicted a crime, all the government is interested in is punishment.
The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution clearly outlaws slavery, “except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” In other words, once a person is placed behind bars, the government of the United States supports the most horrendous punishments, and is completely indifferent to any form of rehabilitation.
Stroud’s history of prisons
At Alcatraz Robert Stroud developed a new interest. He began work on his two-thousand page book titled: A History of the U.S. Prison System from Colonial Times to the formation of the Bureau of Prisons. In this book, Stroud wrote about the brutality, sex, bribery, and the monumental failure of the prison system to rehabilitate inmates. He wrote that: “To sadistic minded persons helplessness is always an invitation to cruelty.”
The prison authorities would not allow this book to be released. A lawyer by the name of Dudley Martin took on Stroud’s case free of charge. Thirty years after Stroud’s death the first part of his book was published.
Who would have been better qualified to write a book about the history of prisons than Robert Stroud. Stroud spent 42 years of his life in solitary confinement. Even after he became world famous for his study of birds, the penal authorities continued his incarceration. After 29 years in prison the authorities denied Stroud a parole.
In his book on the history of prisons, Stroud acknowledged that he was gay. Imagine the courage it took to make this statement and to write this book.
Today, in the four major sports of football, basketball, baseball, and hockey only one or two athletes have acknowledged that they are gay. Stroud was a prisoner who was at the mercy of guards and prisoners who might take advantage of him because he stood up to the authorities. Yet he made his stand.
Today anyone who lives in the United States has a better chance of going to prison than citizens of any other nation in the world. (An exception to this statement might be found in the West Bank and Gaza Strip where about 3.5 million Palestinians live in a effective prison.) The U.S. might be the only nation where entire prisons known as Super-Max are entirely dedicated to solitary confinement.
Yes the story of Robert Stroud continues to be relevant today. When the history of the United States is written by rational people, there will be a chapter on the life of Robert Stroud. This will be the story of someone who was convicted of murder and then became a world renown ornithologist. The U.S. government responded to Stroud’s example by keeping him in prison for the over 50 years.