Tuesday

The Flipside of Alcatraz and Drapchi Prison

Took a trip up to the Rock this weekend. Funny, lived in SF, been in the city a zillion times - just never made it over to "The Rock."

Alcatraz docks

In the 60's, it was reclaimed by Native Americans briefly.
Typical cell.
We all know about some of the famous inmates here, Machine Gun Kelly, Alfonso Capone.  Robert Stroud.


Al was 35 in this pic.














Oddly enough - Al owned a couple of homes in my hometown of Northbrook Illinois. And the land that I grew up on was reportedly one of his "ranch properties." My parents bought it in the 50's from someone who had purchased it from one of his relatives.

There had been cows up on our hill, and we often found bones while digging up the backyard.  Years later, I wondered if there might be any other bones up in Al's old ranch property (frenemies.) Alas, never got around to looking.


The Rock from SF

While visiting the rock I met this fellow. Author William Baker,  Bill Baker former Alcatraz inmate #1259.


William G Baker, Author/Inmate Alcatraz 1259
I spoke to Bill briefly about his life.  I said "What's it like for you to have been brought here so many years ago, to come back here on your own volition?"

He said "I've been asked that question 100's of times. Normally I just say "Cause I'm crazy."

"But I'm going to tell you the answer. It's because I have no remorse.  Most people don't realize that Alcatraz was a place where prisoners came here who were already in prison and had done something to get them labeled as bad prisoners.  So no one came here for their first time in prison. They'd already been in prison and they'd escaped."

According to his entertaining book, he'd tried to escape a number of times, and was sent here because of them.  "The men who were here had already been in the prison system. So they knew what to expect.  And they dealt with it.  But the reason I can come back up here is that I have no remorse. I had no remorse back then and I have no remorse now."

I asked why he thought that was, or if remorse had something to do with how we get through life.

He said "Some people are upset about their lot in life, about what's happened to them.  But I never had it. And I don't have it now."  He said "Let me put it this way, all those Wardens who used to run this place are dead.  Now I'm running this place."

I asked if he'd ever dreamt about his old pals that he knew while he was incarcerated on The Rock. He said "All the time."  I asked if they appeared sad or happy in his dreams.  He said "Always happy. Whenever I see them they're happy."  I asked him if he ever heard anything "new" from them - something that he wasn't aware they'd said or expressed before.  He said "I have to think on that awhile. Nothing comes to mind. But they're all happy."

I wanted to say "It's because they've returned "home" and of course they're going to be happy."  But did not.

During the tour of Alcatraz, there was a moment in "D Block" where the prisoners were locked into isolation. The voice tour includes an inmate saying "But if you close your eyes, eventually you see a pinpoint of light, and then you see images - and those images can take you anywhere."

Take you anywhere.  Cool.

The irony is here though - a man put in prison for being incorrigible.  At the age of 23 sent to Alcatraz where the toughest, baddest, worst of the worst were sent.  And he had no remorse about being sent there.  In fact he'd written a book about it, and had returned to dance on the graves of those who'd put him in here.

NPR interviewed Bill some years back:


And now to Tibet....

The Potala Palace Tibet

When you think of life as a play - a stage play - and people choose their costumes and props, and roles they're going to play - it makes perfect sense that the inmate would return to gloat over surviving beyond all of them.
Palden Gyatso


Years ago I met a Tibetan Monk who had been incarcerated for decades in the notorious Drapchi prison. 

This is the notorious prison in Lhasa, Tibet where the Chinese put dissidents, or just people they don't like. 

They're sent there and tortured on a daily basis. It might be because of the inmate's adherence to his religion or robes. It might be because a guard didn't like them. But Drapchi is often a one way ticket off the planet for those monks sent here.

 (Buddhism, according to scholars like Robert Thurman is a religion in name only - since it doesn't "believe" in any deity, or any creator - that all humans are equal in terms of being able to achieve enlightenment on their own, through the powers of their brain - it's mis-categorized as a religion. It's actually a philosophy.  And the fact that China, an avowed atheist/communist government has been torturing and abusing Tibetans for decades to dissuade them from following a "philosophy" is worth pondering.  (Since it's not a religion, then Mao's admonition "all religion is poison" wouldn't apply to Buddhism in the first place ... but I digress.)

Palden showing "thumb cuffs"

But I met this elderly monk in Los Angeles. Palden Gyatso.  He spoke of his incarceration, and I asked him about the "happiest day of his life." With tears in his eyes, he said it was upon his release, when he got to meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama. 

What's amazing to me about his story - this is a man who was tortured for three decades. And when he was released, he snuck out some of his instruments of torture. Cattle prods. Handcuffs. He's spoken about these days of torture. And about those who tortured him.  He survived beyond the lives of two of the three of his principal torturers.

That is - the man who tortured him for a decade - who went to work each day at Drapchi and spent his day torturing this happy little man - dropped dead. So they assigned another torturer. He lasted another decade. Then he dropped dead. The third torturer let Palden Gyatso (born 1933) go.

It's great to hear that Bill Baker has survived his ordeal. But as he put it "He knew what he was in for, and it wasn't an ordeal for him."  Palden Gyatso suffered immensely for his devotion to his vows as a monk, but in his case he prayed every day for the liberation of his captors.  Prayed every day that they would not suffer for the pain that they were causing him.  His prayers, as strong as they were, didn't help the two Chinese guards who dropped dead while torturing this humble old monk.  

But I would offer that in order to live life fully, try to leave remorse out of the picture.  Just live your life. If you have to do time, then you do the time.  Pray for the liberation of all souls, the prisoners, the prison guards, the wardens.  After all - they're not gone, they're just not here.

"Now I'm running this place."


In both cases, these men are "Dancing on the graves" of those who incarcerated them.  Interesting to think about.

Below is a tape smuggled out of Drapchi Prison by these Buddhist nuns whose sentences were increased by years because of its revelation.  Worth reminding folks there are prisoners suffering around the world for nonsensical reasons - the entire prison concept needs to be rethought in light of flipside research.  Punishment isn't relevant, revenge is meaningless, giving people the opportunity to help others through teaching or compassion is the only logical way to deal with prisons or prisoners. (See Michael Moore's "Where to Invade Next" for further info). If we're here to teach, learn or help - what's the point?

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