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Escape from Alcatraz

Alcatraz Island sits in the middle of San Francisco Bay, surrounded by almost two miles of turbulent and treacherous water. For nearly one hundred years, the island housed a prison, and the place earned the nickname “The Rock” because it was inescapable.

Constructed as a United States Army fortress in the 1850s, the twenty-two-acre island became an Army prison during the Civil War. In 1933, Alcatraz was turned over to the Department of Justice to be used as a federal penitentiary, and during the next thirty years, it housed some notorious criminals—Al Capone, Whitey Bulger, Bumpy Johnson, and Arthur “Doc” Barker, son of the infamous Ma Barker, were among its denizens.

Prisoners sent to Alcatraz did not escape, and those who tried served as a caution to the rest. Doc Barker successfully climbed the prison walls but was shot to death on the beach while trying to construct a makeshift raft. Joseph Bowers was shot while trying to climb the fence and died from injuries sustained in the fall. Aaron Burgett overpowered a guard while taking out the garbage. He jumped into the water and tried to swim, but his body was found two weeks later floating in the bay. Over the years, fourteen documented escape attempts ended in prisoners being killed or presumed drowned in San Francisco Bay.

There’s usually an exception to every rule, and someone did escape Alcatraz. No swimming, no makeshift life raft, though. Four inmates simply walked out in 1903. An inmate who was the brains behind the operation worked in the prison print shop. He created a copy of a piece of letterhead bearing the War Department logo and on it wrote a letter remitting the sentences of himself and three other prisoners. He forged the signatures of Judge Henry Morrow and Major Williams. A second prisoner, who worked as a prison postal clerk, smuggled the letters out of the prison. An outside accomplice mailed them to the prison commander, Major Paxton. Believing the documents to be authentic, Paxton released the four prisoners. These inmates who escaped by means of a fake pardon were never found.

You’ve been granted a pardon—a genuine one! You’ve been set free, and your release orders were signed by the One who judges all humankind. That’s the whole point of these verses in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

God saved you by His grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a [free] gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things He planned for us long ago. (2:8-10, NLT)

You’ve been set free, and your release orders were signed by the One who judges all mankind.


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