Alcatraz, better known as “The Rock.” It began as a military fortress which eventually housed the states top criminals. Housing famous inmates from Al Capone and Henri Young to George “Machine Gun” Kelly. Alcatraz is believed to be the greatest prison system in American history. How did this place start with such great potential to being a nightmare in America’s past? What really went on behind the concrete walls of the island of San Francisco, California? To get the best understanding we will start with the beginning.
Alcatraz was first named by Naval Officer Juan Manuel de Ayala. Him and his crew where the first Europeans to sail in the San Francisco Bay. He named Alcatraz Island while he was charting the San Francisco Bay for the Spanish. He gave it the name La Isla de los Alcatraces. Many years later the United States believed that it would serve best as a military fortress. It wasn’t until the mid-1910’s that it found its true purpose as a top security prison. It was America’s first military prison in 1912 where they had built a cell house; after 10 years of being in use the prison was nearly full. Then in August of 1934 Alcatraz was dedicated as a federal security prison as named “Alcatraz.” While in use as a military fortress it served as a prison as well. This is where Alcatraz started its bad reputations for cruel and unforgiving punishments and isolation.
During its 29 year span there were four wardens and 1,576 prisoners. Alcatraz seemed to be the world’s strongest and longest lasting prison. It was the prison that could never be destroyed. The dark rock had many enemies. All of which were criminals. Yet, there was one enemy that no one would suspect. One, which would shut down the facility forever. The secret destroyer of “The Rock” would be salt water. The salt water from the Pacific Ocean would slowly eat away and soften the concrete more and more over its twenty-nine years of operation. It is still believed today that Alcatraz would have never closed except for the damage of the salt water was too sever to repair. This became the reason that Alcatraz would close its cell doors forever. In its twenty-nine years of operation “That baby, my great-niece, was the only child ever permitted to visit an inmate in the history of Alcatraz.” (106) that child was there to visit Darwin Coon. A man, who served four years in Alcatraz.
Life on Alcatraz was difficult and boring. There were no heaters or air conditioning. And because of its location there was a constant wind that blew freezing air off the Pacific Ocean and into the concrete structure. Each cell was five feet by nine feet. Each prisoner had a bed, sink and toilet. The beds were hard wood with a stiff mattress. They were given one blanket and one pillow. Every inmate had four rights: Food, Clothing, Shelter, and Medical Care. Everything else was a privilege. On the day of arrival “Each of us was given a rule book and told to read it. We had standing count three times a day. When the count bell rang, the inmate had to stand up to the bars of his cell with both hands pushed through the bars. He stood there until he heard the all clear bell ring. The first time that an inmate missed a standing count, he got a warning. The second time, he got three days in the TU, the Treatment Unit.” (77)
Not only were they not allowed anything but they had a very strict daily routine. Prisoners were to wake up at 7 A.M. every morning. They had to follow specific instructions on how to dress and make their beds. At 7:30 inmates eat breakfast sitting in the same order as their cell numbers. Food was not regulated, you could take all the food you wanted but you had to eat everything you took. By 7:50 inmates are either sent to their work areas or back to their cells. 12:00 noon Lunch would be served. 1:20 inmates are to work until 4:00. Dinner was served as 4:40 and by 5:00 P.M. inmates were locked in their cells for the night. On Saturday, Sunday, and holidays inmates were allowed to sleep in till 7:15 but, no later than that.
Not only was it a home for inmates but the Island served as home for the staff and families. Any person working in the prison was required to live in housing on the island. The mother’s would stay home during the day and sometimes visit the other officer’s wives. There was even a school house built for the kids. The children would be at school all day; then when their dads got off work they would all meet at home for dinner. The island provided a type of daycare also for those who needed their kids to be watched as they made a trip to the mainland to make family visits or restock on items they were out of. The adults who watched the children however were inmates. These inmates were the ones that had been good and received it as their work assignment.
For punishment there were eight different types. Punishments were anywhere from losing privileges to ending with beatings. There were two types of privileges. The first was “Good Time.” Every prisoner was given 2400 days of “free time” which were days that were used to end an inmate’s sentence early. These days could be earned back but rarely did it happen. The second was the removal of all their privileges which could be the removal of arts and crafts to loosing yard time. The next two types of punishment were sensory deprivation and environmental torture. Both dealt with being placed in isolation. Which were known as the “Dungeons” or “The Hole.” In environmental torture the inmates would be placed in solitary confinement and sprayed with ice water from the ocean. The inmates were made to lay in it till the end of their solitary confinement or till the water evaporated away. Either way the inmate was made to sit in the cold water. The second punishment sensory deprivation included no light, sound, or person interaction. They would be given food and water three times daily with one full meal every two days. But by 1936 prisoners in solitary confinement were claiming that they were only given food every two days. The last two types of torture were physical as well. The first were beatings. Beatings were not usual but still happened. Guards would beat inmates till they were bleeding or in some instances till they were unconscious. The last was alimentary rape. It is better known as “force-feeding.” If an inmate went on a hunger strike the officers would strap him down and shove a rubber tube down the throat of the inmate. A metal plier was used to forcefully open the inmate’s mouth. They would pour a mixture of eggs, milk, and sugar down the tube into the stomach. The alimentary rape punishment was rarely used but still occurred. The punishment that caused the most problems was the ones that involved “The Hole.” There were several accounts of people medically “losing their minds.” Many had hallucinations and sensory issues; in extreme cases inmates suffered from depression and thoughts of suicide.
There were a total of fourteen escape attempts that involved thirty-six prisoners. Five of those men were written down as missing or drowned. Most ended up in drowning’s or waded in the ocean till someone could rescue them. Nobody ever made it to the mainland though. The most famous escapes included Henri Young, Arthur “Doc” Baker, and Frank Morris. The first attempt was made on April 27, 1936. Joe Bowers crawled up a chain link fence and refused to climb back down. He was shot and fell over fifty feet to the ground. He ended up dying from his injuries. January 13, 1939’s escape involved Henri Young, Arthur “Doc” Barker, Dale Stamphill, William Martin, and Rufus McCain. They had sawed through the bars of their cells and crawled down to the shore where officers stopped them. Barker and Stamphill were shot meanwhile the other three surrendered. Barker was died from the gunshot. The most famous attempt was made into a movie and Frank Morris was played by Clint Eastwood. The escape involved a total of three people: Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin. John and Clarence were brothers. They had chiseled their way through the corroded concrete near the vent. They made plaster coverings and plaster heads. The night of the escape the three men placed the plaster heads in place of their true ones and climbed through the holes. They climbed around the pipes up to the roof, and then climbed down into the ocean. The escape wasn’t noticed till the next morning. Officers are unsure what happened to the men and are officially listed as missing. Nobody will admit it but they are believed to have reached the shores. Darwin Coon states he is always asked if the Anglin brothers made it off the island. He replies “I think so. Those boys grew up in the Everglades in Florida and I think they went back there and disappeared.” (95) The final escape was made December 12, 1962. Two men had escaped down into the water but both were returned to Alcatraz.
The closure of the USP Alcatraz. It was officially closed March 21 2963 by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. The reasons for its closure were the salt erosions, cost of operation, and pollution. It was adopted by Native Americans which turned the island into a culture and education center. In 1976 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was then listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1986. In 1980 it was turned into a tourist site and is still in use as a tourist attraction today. Alcatraz is one of the most famous prisons today and was in operation less than 30 years.
"Alcatraz FAQ." U.S. National Park Service - Experience Your America. Web. 28 Feb. 2011.