A visit to Alcatraz in October 2012

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“You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention. Anything else you get is a privilege.”

Such was the welcome faced by fresh inmates to America’s most notorious prison; the law as laid down in Section Number 5 of the Alcatraz Prison Rules and Regulations,1934.

How times change.

“From New Zealand? Kia ora, Bro! Welcome to Alcatraz!” Yes, the wardens these days are a friendly, hospitable lot.

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Alcatraz — made in Hollywood

Alcatraz is the most popular attraction in San Francisco after the Golden Gate Bridge, and booking your visit there is essential. On sunny days, sitting in the deep blue waters of San Francisco Bay, passed by yachts and ferries filled with tourists headed back and forth from its dock, Alcatraz appears quite benign. Cliffs and whitewashed buildings gleam pleasantly in the sun; gulls sweep around its summit and in the background the Golden Gate Bridge glows.

So although I was initially disappointed that my visit to Alcatraz coincided with the first day of persistent rain the city had seen in months, it turned out to be the perfect accompaniment to sampling the depths of despair so many must have felt upon arrival – because in the rain and greyness Alcatraz is unimaginably bleak.

Cloud (or was it fog? – hard to tell the difference in San Francisco) swirled around the lighthouse above the cellblock, and the lamp on the dock gangway glowed brightly in the gloom. We shuffled off the ship, several hundred of us gathered in the rain like latter day prisoners below a guard tower to hear an introduction to the island.

IMG_0593_HDRThe old power station

IMG_0591The cellblock at the summit by the lighthouse

Alcatraz has had many occupants over the years, but hardened criminals constituted the population only between1934 and 1963. After the lighthouse was built on the uninhabited rock in 1847, a fort was constructed for the defence of San Francisco Bay and by the Civil War in 1861 Alcatraz bristled with cannon. At the turn of the century Alcatraz’s defences had become obsolete, and in 1907 the army decommissioned the island as a fortification.

The army then began building the huge concrete Cellhouse you can tour today, and in 1915 Alcatraz was renamed “United States Disciplinary Barracks, Pacific Branch”. But it was the Great Depression of the 1930s and the gangster-ridden era of Prohibition that led to the creation of the Bureau of Prisons, which, in turn, became most interested in using Alcatraz as a high-profile, maximum security facility.

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In the sunshine, with its wonderful views of San Francisco, one can imagine that life outside the cells on Alcatraz was not to be sneezed at. There were up to 300 civilians living there during its time as a penitentiary, families and children of the guards and other prison staff. There was a school, they played games, had a bowling alley and a soda fountain shop, and went shopping to the mainland on any one of 12 daily sailings laid on for them. The impression is of a sweet island existence, which is more than can be said of life for the inmates.

I was struck by the cruelty of the proximity of the island to the glittering city across the bay – so very near, yet so very far and out of reach. It’s hard to imagine years of incarceration in a tiny, cold cell where you could stand and touch both walls simultaneously, knowing that real life existed just there among the bright lights over the water.

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The main cells in B and C-Blocks are on three tiers and uniformly stark: a bed, toilet, and sink with cold running water. They were not shared, which, for many prisoners, was a blessing: privacy was cherished, and the likelihood of sexual violation was lessened. If you ended up in D-Block, it meant you were segregated, in solitary, albeit in a slightly larger cell, but banged up nevertheless for 24 hours a day. You did get one visit to the exercise yard a week, on your own.

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The tour of the Cellhouse building, which stands at the island’s summit, towering menacingly over the other structures, is much more of an experience than merely looking into a succession of depressing, empty cells. This is because of the wonderful “self-guided” nature of the tour. You are given headphones with a control consul, and as you pass cells, or enter various “cellblocks”, commentaries are delivered in a personal fashion by past guards and their prisoners. It sheds great light on the tremendous darkness of the daily existence endured by prisoner and captor.

IMG_0652Main Cellblock

IMG_0650Cellblock building with terraced gardens

In fact, you really have to pay attention to the commentary, because if you turn the wrong way, which is easy to do, it becomes quite a challenge to push through the crowd to find the relevant cell for the story being related. I got hopelessly lost trying to figure out where the 1946 riot and (unsuccessful) escape attempt took place, and found myself in the cafeteria where it most certainly never happened. The food in the cafeteria, incidentally, was regarded as the best in the entire prison system.

Alcatraz is, of course, shrouded not only in fog but in myth: made in Hollywood. In the guardroom Clint Eastwood stares out of a montage of movie posters: “Escape From Alcatraz”. Well, it seems that despite numerous attempts no one did, or lived to tell the tale, including Eastwood’s character Frank Lee Morris. But the temptation to leave must have been overpowering for prisoners who had nothing to lose. Life in Alcatraz was not life in any true sense of the word. Better risk a bullet or die in the ocean. And that’s what many did.

IMG_0604The Chapel

In the 29 years Alcatraz operated as prison, 36 men attempted to escape. Twenty-three were caught, and six were shot and killed during the escape. Two drowned. A further five prisoners are still listed as “missing presumably drowned”, including Frank Morris. They may have made it and lived an anonymous life in a backwater somewhere, but I have my doubts. The ocean currents are quite something to behold, and the frigid sea is suitable only for seals. Prisoners were always given warm showers so they would not become inured to the cold sea.

Another Hollywood myth I had dispelled was that the “Birdman of Alcatraz”, Robert Stroud, played by Burt Lancaster, never had any birds in Alcatraz, not even the tiniest canary. It turns out his real nickname was “Bird Doctor of Leavenworth”, the prison from where he was transferred and gained his interest in birds. Neither was he the mild-mannered, humane individual played by Lancaster, but a vicious, murdering thug.

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Two other infamous inmates of Alcatraz included Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly who, it is said, boasted constantly about his exploits, yet was regarded as a model prisoner by Warden James A. Johnson. I found the mugshot of Capone especially fascinating. He is not looking into the camera but, it seems to me, to a wider audience, grinning, smug and arrogant with more than a hint of psychosis thrown in.

Capone’s existence at Alcatraz was fairly uneventful – though he was once stabbed with some shears and went to the prison hospital – and he singularly failed to elicit from Warden Johnson the special privileges he had obtained by manipulating the system at previous prisons.

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As you exit the Cellhouse building through the gift shop, where you can buy prisoner issue tin mugs, handcuffs, keys and caps, there is a poster display of notorious Alcatraz inmates. These mugshots are compelling in their commonality: the defiance in the hard stare that follows you around; not the look of men down and out and captured, but a confident, unshakeable look that says, “You won’t break me. I’m hard.”

But that was before they did their time on “the Rock”, the great leveller.

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