Accessibility Tools

25 April 2024
Jim Quillen, Alcatraz inmate & guide.

I met Jim Quillen on a tour of Alcatraz when I was in San Francisco in about 1992. I had gone on one of the self-guided tours where you are given a headset with a narrated talk of the island & can do the tour at your own speed.

Jim Quillen.

I noticed a small sign when I landed on the Island that advertised that ex-prisoner, Jim Quillen, would be giving a talk about life as a prisoner on the rock during the day. I ensured I was at the correct place & at the correct time to listen to his story.

His story was very interesting, about his crimes, the different prisons he had been in & some of the prisoners that he had been locked up with, like Robert Stroud the birdman of Alcatraz. He personally left Alcatraz & was transferred to San Quentin in 1952 where he became a certified radiology technician.

Many of the people at the book signing asked him about the escape of Frank Morris & two brothers Clarence & John Anglin from Alcatraz. People asked him if he believed they had really escaped. He himself hadn't been at Alcatraz at the same time but he had tried to escape several times himself. He said that he didn't know but that he hoped that they had escaped & managed to live through the icy cold crossing of San Francisco bay.

After the speech he gave to us all, he started to meet & greet people individually & was autographing copies of his book. He asked each person to spell their names so that he wouldn't make a mistake as he wrote a message to them inside the cover. When it got to my turn he didn't ask me how to spell Morris. I had worked out that if Frank Morris had escaped & lived I could have been his son or grandson. As Jim handed me my autographed book I could see him looking me up & down. I quickly lent forwards & quietly so no one else but him could hear, I said, "Dad said to say hello & tell you he is doing fine". I then quickly turned & walked away without looking back at him & left the building. I like to think that he often wondered if I was indeed related to the escaped Frank Morris. 

About Jim Quillen.

Jim Quillen was born in 1919 & was in trouble with the law from a young age. He was a runaway, problem child & petty thief who was jailed several times before his twentieth birthday. In August 1942, after escaping from San Quentin, he was arrested on the run & at 22 years old,  he was sentenced to 45 years at the United States Penitentiary Alcatraz Island.

He grew up never really knowing his mother & after a prison minister tracked her down, only to discover that she had recently died & was buried in a pauper’s grave, something changed in side him. With no hope of ever getting free, he began a rigorous course toward self-improvement. His attitude changed completely & he began working in the prison hospital where he sought & received training as a radiology technician.

He was transferred to San Quentin in 1952 where he became a certified radiology technician. He was eventually released & although he steered clear of crime, his personal life was a roller coaster for many years. Eventually, he met the right woman & had a daughter & grandchildren.