You hear the creaking cell door slam behind you as you hopelessly examine your new living quarters. An old soggy mattress and a filthy rusted toilet are all you see in a room slightly bigger than a closet. Welcome to prison. But hey, things could always be worse: You could be locked up aboard the HMS Jersey.
During the Revolutionary War, some of the captured Americans were slaughtered immediately or placed into prison camps; others were crammed into the floating prison known as the HMS Jersey. And, according to the descriptions of the hellish vessel, death seemed like a far more preferable option.
Worse than any redcoat, the HMS Jersey became a symbol of immense suffering. Whispers spread through soldier camps of the horrors that awaited aboard the Royal Navy’s vessel. Every fighter that saw her docked was filled with dread.
Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images
From shore, the British vessel looked like any other ship floating aimlessly in the middle of the sea. However, the environment aboard was unlike anything most soldiers had experienced. The HMS Jersey was a floating hell.
Used as a prison for captured American soldiers, the ship was constantly overcrowded, leading to countless soldiers perishing. The British, as you can imagine, cared little about the prisoners’ comfort in narrow bunks.
To describe the conditions as “miserable” was a gross understatement. Soldiers were treated as less than animals, and everything they were supplied with was barely enough to keep a sick rat alive, especially the food.
Because the men knew if they ate nothing they’d die, they forced themselves to choke down bread caked in fuzzy mold, and they washed each bite down with water that looked and smelled like rancid molasses.
One of the prisoners on board, Ebenezer Fox, described the atrocious rations: “The bread was mostly moldy, and filled with worms. As for the pork, it exhibited the consistence and appearance of variegated soap.” This was just one aspect of the misery.
Every day, British soldiers walked through the droves of starving and injured soldiers looking for ones who seemed in the best health. They gathered these men up and gave them one option to leave the vessel.
They had to fight for the British. If they declined, they were either thrown back into the mass of diseased prisoners onboard or faced execution. There was absolutely no positive outcome imaginable.
Without proper food and living conditions, the HMS Jersey was a Petri dish full of horrendous illnesses. There were actually nurses on the ship, but they were the last group of people you wanted to seek help from.
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The enlisted medics who were sent to tend to dying prisoners immediately robbed them of any belongings they had, claiming they were keeping them “safe.” In reality, of course, they never intended to return them.
Although the energy among the captured was bleak, they tried to find reasons to stay alive, although their efforts were not welcomed. Dozens of prisoners were attacked and deprived water on the Fourth of July for singing.
One prisoner described the scene on that particular day: “The heat was extreme. Not a drop of water could be obtained during the whole night. The shrieks of the wounded formed a combination of horrors which no pen can describe.”
Naturally, escape was constantly on the prisoners’ minds. Occasionally, transfers would occur between ships, and that was when many tried to flee. Of course, the Brits were ready to take brutal action against the feeble attempts.
Surrounded by miles of ocean, the only option for escape was to swim. However, prisoners were immediately shot dead by Brits who fired their guns wildly into the water, picking off the escapees one by one.
Craig F. Walker / Boston Globe
Although nearly every aspect of life was hopeless, on occasion, a prisoner’s remains were brought to shore. Fellow inmates dug the graves, and they would often return to the ship with tufts of earth, a huge lifeline.
The tufts were passed around so each prisoner could bury their nose in them, take a smell, and briefly fill their minds with happier memories. It was little moments like these that kept willpower alive.
Poet Philip Freneau, a prisoner held for six weeks on the Jersey, penned a vicious piece of work detailing the misery he experienced. Aptly titled “The Prison Ship,” his words shocked all who read it.
“A desert country and a clouded sky,” one stanza of the poem went, “Death has no charms except in British eyes / See how they court the bleeding sacrifice! / See how they pant to stain the world with gore.”
Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Image
Fortunately, the war eventually came to an end, which meant the obliteration of the HMS Jersey. However, the lives lost were never forgotten, and a massive memorial stands in New York City to honor those who perished.
You can only imagine how haunting the HMS Jersey would feel if it were still around today. The old prison ship draws comparisons to a more recent penitentiary.
Sam Scholes / Getty Images
Every summer, dozens of triathletes undertake a 1.5 mile swim from Alcatraz to the San Francisco Bay. While this race is simply meant for sport, some use it as evidence supporting the most successful prison break in history. It also helps show how hard it was to escape from the HMS Jersey.
Jim Heath / Triathlon World
There was some serious chatter in the Alcatraz prison yard during the early months of 1962. Most inmates were content to quietly pass the time until their release, but three prisoners were desperate to get out. Luckily, they had a plan.
The Malpaso Company
John Morris met brothers Clarence and John Anglin during a previous prison stint in Atlanta; it seemed like providence when the three bank robbers were assigned to adjacent cells on The Rock. They agreed to smuggle a few special items out of the mess hall.
Spoons. On their own, these utensils wouldn’t do much good for tunneling. But a bit of sharpening turned them into handy picks that could chip away at the concrete walls. The cons’ plan would be slow, though that’s just how they wanted it.
Michael Short / The San Francisco Chronicle
They heard about the so-called “Battle of Alcatraz” that erupted back in 1946, when a group of prisoners tried to take the jail by force. Once the guards overpowered them, this doomed attempt got everyone involved shot, executed, or locked up for life.
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Morris and the Anglins agreed that a shootout would be a one-way ticket to the grave. If their schemes went off without a hitch, the trio would make it off the island before anybody realized they were gone.
Hunched under their cell sinks, the conspirators worked to widen ventilation ducts into tunnels. Prisoners were allowed to play music at certain hours of the day, so Morris blasted his accordion to cover up the excavation noise.
The dig was slow going, but it gave the trio time to perfect the other parts of their plan. They collected supplies from various blocks of the prison, including a bag of hair trimmings from the barber.
Bud Marshall / Pioneer Press
Each lock was a key ingredient for the most ingenious feature of their escape. Morris and the Anglins constructed papier-mâché models of their own heads, complete with real human hair. Hopefully, these sculptures would buy them a few more hours.
Liz Hafalia / The San Francisco Chronicle
On the night of June 11, the convicts made their move. They crawled through their tunnels, snuck through a little-used service corridor, and broke through a ventilation shaft in the roof. However, the metal grill made a loud clang when they pushed it aside.
U.S. Penitentiary Alcatraz
But the guards made nothing of it! All the prisoners appeared to be in their beds, thanks to the dummy heads that Morris and the Anglins had constructed! It wasn’t until the next morning that the guards discovered the ruse.
Alcatraz officials were in a frenzy as they retraced the escapees’ route. A prison who helped engineer the operation confessed that Morris and the Anglin brothers constructed a raft out of raincoats and were currently making their way to nearby Angel Island.
U.S. Penitentiary Alcatraz
A comprehensive search of the bay turned up a floating paddle, a tattered homemade life jacket, and fragments of the raft. Police deduced that the prison breakers must have drowned during the rough voyage. They assured the public not to worry.
Alcatraz, now a museum, continues to buy into that narrative. Tour guides retell the stages of the complex escape while maintaining that none of the three criminals ever made it back to the mainland. Not everyone is so sure, however.
John and Clarence Anglin’s family received a number of postcards over the years, purportedly from the fugitives. They could have been pranks, except the trend kept up. Their mother received an anonymous bouquet of flowers every Mother’s Day for the rest of her life!
Then there were the alleged sightings. An old pal of Morris claimed he encountered him in Maryland. Meanwhile, a family friend of the Anglins believed he spotted them during a vacation to Brazil. A photo of two men in South American resembling the brothers supported his story.
In fact, the FBI has followed these leads, investigating whether it was possible that the escape was successful. They’ve also released time-lapsed mugshots to the public to aid in their search, but to no avail. It seemed like a cold case until 2013.
A letter arrived at FBI headquarters, signed by one John Anglin. It spelled out the supposed truth of their post-prison lives, stating that all three fugitives lived until old age. John, real or fake, claimed to be the last living member, and he included a shocking request.
CBS San Francisco
He said that he had cancer and was willing to reenter the prison system for a year in exchange for medical treatment! FBI agents asked themselves if such a message was too good to be true.
Heidi de Marco / California Healthline
After handwriting analysts failed to establish a solid link between Anglin’s handwriting and this letter, the FBI concluded that the author was likely not authentic. On the other hand, they couldn’t disprove his identity outright.
Graphology Consulting Group
That letter could be the last possible piece of evidence in the famed escape case. We may never truly know if the convicts made it off of Alcatraz alive. The alleged Anglin letter, however, did eerily foreshadow a sinister bargain that many sick people are taking around the world.
Toshio Takata struggled to make ends meet. After moving into a halfway house, it got to the point where the 62-year-old had trouble buying supplies for his beloved art projects. This old dog would have to learn some new tricks if he wanted to survive.
Traditionally speaking, the Japanese treat their elders quite well. Old-fashioned standards oblige younger people to not only care for their parents and grandparents, but to treat them with the utmost respect.
In the modern age, however, more and more senior citizens like Toshio are feeling left behind. His family has more or less dissolved, and he’s grown estranged from his brothers, two ex-wives, and three children. Toshio only has himself.
Across the country, older Japanese citizens are unable to find a support system. There’s just so many of them. Over a third of the national population is now 60 or older, and the senior citizens have outnumbered the children for years.
With the number of seniors only increasing, Toshio saw some of his contemporaries lose just about everything. Even with pensions and benefits, they couldn’t afford food and housing. Some were even put out on the street. But Toshio found a solution.
Nowadays, Toshio lives comfortably. He’s got three square meals a day, plenty of staff on hand to provide for his every need, and plenty of similarly aged friends to spend time with. It all started with a bicycle.
This bicycle didn’t belong to him. Toshio found it parked on a street corner in Hiroshima, and he just rode off with it. But this was no mere joy ride; Toshio knew exactly where he was headed.
Flickr / Nicolas Raddatz
He rode to the nearest police station. Approaching the front desk, the old man calmly informed the authorities that he stole the bicycle. With no other choice, the police cuffed the seemingly harmless senior and brought him in.
The court sentenced him to one year in prison for petty theft. Did Toshio have an uncharacteristic lapse in judgment? Had he been hit with a wave of remorse once he hopped on the bike?
Nope. The theft, the arrest, the sentence — it had all been part of his plan. With no criminal history, in the Japanese prison system, he enjoyed the stability behind bars.
Kiyoshi Ota / Bloomberg
So he served his year worry free for the most part. Then, once he got out, something peculiar happened: Toshio threatened women in the park with a knife.
He now claims that he didn’t mean any harm, he simply wanted the police to lock him up once again — this time for a longer period of time. A single year wouldn’t cut it anymore.
Now 69-years-old, Toshio wakes up in a cell every morning, but he does so with a purpose. He has a place where he belongs and all the time in the world to work on his art. Strangely enough, he’s not the only one to enjoy life behind bars.
In a trend that no social scientist saw coming, one in five Japanese inmates is 60 years or older. And these aren’t hardened criminals either.
The police nab nearly all these gray-haired cons for minor offenses. Many shoplift from stores, either as a means to feed themselves for free or to get caught on purpose. With Japan’s relatively severe penalties for theft, they all end up incarcerated.
This is no short-term solution for seniors, either. Roughly a quarter of them commit another offense soon after their release, leading to an even longer sentence. But why is prison such an attractive place for them to spend their golden years?
Like Toshio, most older inmates will claim economic reasons. Besides living for free behind bars, they can still continue to collect their pensions. They’ll have some nice savings once free. However, this may not tell the whole story.
According to Kanichi Yamada, director of a rehabilitation center, elderly inmates’ real motivation may be loneliness. He theorizes that they usually have lost their loved ones and fail to rediscover their places in mainstream society.
Regardless of why Japanese seniors are seeking out cells, jails have drastically evolved to accommodate them. Facilities and events have become more accessible to older demographics, and specialized guards have joined to help care for these prisoners.
For now, prison life remains more comfortable than freedom for Toshio and his ilk. They feel certain that there’s nothing for them outside the jail walls. However, a large segment of senior inmates do have one key difference from Toshio.
Bloomberg / Shiho Fukada
An increasing number of them are women! Although women across the board are statistically less likely to commit a crime than men, female seniors who live alone are particularly affected by poverty and isolation.
The Seattle Times
Prison offers struggling women a way to escape their burdens and anxiety, though none of them process their strange path the same way. While some freed inmates admit they feel guilty, others look back on their incarceration with nostalgia.
With the population of senior citizens on the rise, Japan will have to find a more efficient way to care for them. If they do not enact radical reforms, the Japanese will find themselves in a prison of their own making. Unfortunately, loneliness and isolation drives seniors to act out all over the globe.
As he walked across the Redding, California, soil for the first time, Kevin Burns’ heart filled with anticipation. He thought about new friends, career prospects, romantic possibilities. But it was his elderly neighbor that won most of his attention.
YouTube / KBurns
Though her house seemed like it could hold a full family, 68-year-old Ruth Ratliff lived next to Kevin all by herself. Odder still, she seemed to never spend any time inside the house. She was always in her parked car, eating.
YouTube / KBurns
It didn’t take long for Kevin to puzzle out the reason why: Ruth lived inside her car. She stocked up on all the necessary supplies and set up a bed of sorts in the backseat. She even kept her small dog in there with her.
YouTube / KBurns
But at the same time, Ruth’s car was totally broken down. Not only could she not drive anywhere, but she also couldn’t even turn on the heat during cold nights. Concerned, Kevin felt obliged to step in. Why didn’t she just move back into her house?
YouTube / KBurns
For a long time, Ruth remained coy about why she avoided her home like the plague. Kevin’s repeated questioning eventually brought the truth to light: “My home has become a dump,” Ruth admitted, “because my best friend died, and I lost my mind.”
YouTube / KBurns
Ruth then made a request of Kevin: could she go inside her home and find a misplaced photo of her parents? She feared she would forget what they looked like. Kevin accepted the quest. opened the house’s, front door, and…walked into an absolute nightmare.
YouTube / KBurns
“My home has become a dump” didn’t do justice to the abysmal state of Ruth’s house. While it clearly was a nice residence years ago, it was now unlivable. A rancid odor made it hard to breathe, and trash and human waste covered the floor of every room.
It became evident that Ruth was a hoarder, incapable of parting with any kind of object. Without some outside help, Kevin realized that Ruth could never return to a normal life. Just as he was about to give up and duck out for fresh air, a strange detail caught his eye.
A makeshift shelf leaned against one wall, and it looked like there was an entire room behind it. Was there a chance that this hidden room escaped the noxious effects of Ruth’s hoarding? Kevin slid the shelf over and entered the black space.
Curiously, as Kevin’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw what looked like a child’s bedroom. He peered at some old photographs taped to the wall. There was no sign of Ruth’s parents, but he did see a photo of some kids that looked like Ruth.
Kevin was about to give up when he spotted the corner of a photo sticking out from the cabinet — it was just the one Ruth asked for! He headed for the door to share the good news until he came across the biggest problem of all.
Gazing up at the ceiling, Kevin noticed many of the rooms were overrun with black mold. While trash could be cleaned up, this poisonous fungus made the house uninhabitable. There was so much of it, Kevin wondered if it could spread to other houses.
Ruth was heartbroken to hear about the decay of her once-beloved home, though she at least agreed to call the fire department. They soon arrived with a truckload of equipment. As it turns out, however, they were not aiming to save the house.
The fire chief explained that the black mold presented a toxic risk that they needed to wipe out immediately. As they set up a perimeter of flames around the condemned house, Kevin held Ruth’s hand and laid out a plan for the future.
Together, the neighbors watched Ruth’s house go up in flames. Although he knew it was for the best, Kevin felt her pain at all the memories burning inside of it. All the evidence of Ruth’s past was gone. Only the woman herself could reveal the truth now — if she wanted to.
Before he could delve into the mysteries of the strange photographs and the hidden room, however, Kevin needed to make accommodations for his aggrieved neighbor. He lacked the money to put her up in his own place, and so he set up a GoFundMe page.
YouTube / KBurns
Amazingly, the community rallied around Ruth, and a local non-profit reached out to Kevin. They ran a nursing home for the elderly, where Ruth could have a real roof over her head for the first time in years. Unfortunately, they couldn’t take in Ruth’s chihuahua.
But Kevin took care of that. He adopted the small dog, and the two of them visited Ruth each week. Over time, Ruth settled back into a regular enough life to regain her mental stability. She began to share the secrets that she was so desperate to hide from the world.
Over a cup of coffee, Kevin finally learned the truth behind the secret bedroom: It didn’t belong to a son or daughter, as Ruth never had kids. It was her own childhood bedroom! After her parents and husband passed away, leaving Ruth alone, she sealed it up. She couldn’t bear to face all the memories and dreams it represented.
Ruth could never go back to her old life; that much was clear. But in her new home, she rediscovered comforts and friendships that she would have forsaken if she stayed alone in her car. Thanks to Kevin’s foray into her house, Ruth’s hopes for the future are burning bright.
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