Alcatraz Island emerged from a bank of fog and I suddenly realized why it’s known as The Rock. Stories of ancient curses, military fortresses and its designation as a National Park are not why visitors flock by the ferry-load to this tourist attraction in the Bay of San Francisco. The reputation of the former Federal Penitentiary as one of America’s most notorious prisons from 1934-1963 is what attracts more than 1.3 million people to this curiously fascinating relic each year.
Once on the island and in the thrall of a personal audio-guide, I was transported far away from the queuing tracksuits and baseball caps by a soundtrack narrated by former inmates and guards. Despite legions of tramping trainers, an eerie emptiness pervades the corridors. I kept looking over my shoulder, but no one was there.
The peeling walls harbour a stronghold of iron bars and bedsteads: Cell upon cell of three storey incarceration. On one side of the main prison building sunlight floods in, though the likes of Al Capone and Robert Stroud (aka The Birdman of Alcatraz) would have been lucky to catch glimpses of the outside world from the tiny slits that masquerade as windows. Alcatraz housed over 1500 of the USA’s most troublesome citizens – those whom other prisons wanted done with. People like Alvin ‘Creepy Karpis’ Karpavicz, who spent more time on Alcatraz than any other inmate, from August 1936 until April 1962.
Apart from the regulation bed, bog and prison rulebook, the caged inhabitants had limited space for personal items – though some crocheted their own blankets, painted or wrote poetry. A sparsely furnished library of around 15,000 volumes (mainly philosophy, fiction and educational books) and concrete exercise yard were seen as sufficient reward for well-behaved inmates. Rehabilitation was unheard of – this was all about punishment. Isolation in D Block – ‘the treatment unit’ – was reserved for unusually dangerous or violent inmates. Men were confined to their cells for 24 hours a day for up to several years, depending upon the offence. The six closed-front cells were used for the most severe disciplinary problems. Treatment in ‘the Hole’ sometimes included total darkness and a restricted diet. This usually lasted for several days, but never more than 19.
Attempts to break free from confinement (as seen in films) are largely fictitious. The few who managed to escape their cells were either shot by guards, or in the case of five infamous prisoners, presumed drowned… This being the subject of Escape from Alcatraz, where the prisoners in question chipped their way through cell walls and escaped up a service shaft onto the roof, never to be seen again.
The guards’ and prison warden’s offices had views over the bay to San Francisco, as well as fridges full of Coca Cola. There’s a tiny window, through which visitors could see a convict – and a hole (perhaps illegal?) which looks just about big enough for rubbing noses. The glass is cracked. Kitchen knives were housed in a way that made it obvious if one were missing – and tear gas canisters were mounted on the canteen ceiling, though these remained unused until their removal upon the prison’s closure in 1963.
A disturbing vision of life for disturbed people is immortalized on this small island – through buildings, bullet holes, blood stains and the strange sensation of simply being there.