Last weekend I watched the movie “Escape from Alcatraz,” one of those quintessential San Francisco movies that you must watch after you move here.
The movie tells the story of three prisoners’ historic escape from The Rock in 1962. The movie is based on true events, but while much is known about how the prisoners escaped, to this day no one knows whether they actually made it to freedom after paddling away from Alcatraz in the raft they fabricated out of raincoats. Many documentaries on YouTube present varying theories based on the evidence collected.
Much of the speculation focuses on Frank Morris (played in the movie by Clint Eastwood), who was supposedly the mastermind behind the ingenious escape.
Accounts of Frank Morris’s life tell a story that is quickly becoming familiar to me: he was orphaned at age 11, and some accounts say his parents abandoned him long before that. Morris entered the foster care system and posed for his first mug shot at age 14. He spent several years bouncing in and out of reform schools before landing in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at age 19. His rap sheet over the next fifteen years was extensive, as Morris moved from prison to prison on charges of robbery, larceny, and drug possession. Along the way, he managed several successful prison escapes, until ultimately he ended up in Alcatraz in 1960.
We often describe prisoners as being “in the system.” Interestingly, we apply the exact same terminology to children in foster care.
Many foster children make a seamless transition from one system to the other, and Frank Morris’s biography is a sad reminder that this pattern is decades old.
A major study completed in 2010 tracked 600 former foster youth in Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin for several years after they aged out of foster care. By the time the six-year study concluded, and the participants were 23 or 24 years old, 80% of the young men had been arrested and 60% had been convicted of a crime, while 45% of men and 18% of women in the study had been incarcerated.
It makes one wonder whether the foster system and the criminal justice system are actually all that separate.
Youth in foster care are powerless. They have little to no control over the circumstances of their daily life or their future. These children have not committed a crime to end up in these circumstances: they are victims.
For many of these youth, then, prison must feel familiar. For some, it is also a guaranteed way to have a roof over their heads. Statistics about homelessness among former foster youth are bleak: the same study found that over 30% of emancipated youth had been homeless for part or all of the years after they aged out.
Alcatraz is famous for being a prison that no one could break out of. While it’s an impressive and imposing structure, I think our society has managed to build many invisible structures that are far more effective at holding our fellow humans captive.
Frank Morris, like many foster youth, spent his whole life trying to escape his past and the loneliness of his childhood. I, for one, hope that he made it to freedom.