07 May 2013

Alcatraz: prison life on a very nasty rock

In San Francisco Bay the army built an island dock in the mid 19th century and constructed defensive positions. Several buildings had been added by the 1860s, when dozens of artillery pieces helped defend against possible Confederate incursions during the Civil War. At the end of this war, it was decided officially to convert the island into a military prison. The Citadel was converted and expanded in the 1870s.

But it wasn't until the Prohibition and Depression era, in 1933, that the Federal Bureau of Prisons made the isolated island into a federal prison. It is clear from all the reports that only the worst of the criminals would be sent to Alcatraz, so the living arrangements were made as miserable as those hardened inmates deserved.

I have been to San Francisco several times and understood that America's most dangerous criminals from 1933 to 1963 were handpicked for Alcatraz. But it was not until the History Channel in Australia showed a new tv programme called Mysteries at the Museum that I understood how men could break out of this apparently impenetrable gaol.

Alcatraz, San Francisco Bay 
The rock also had homes and facilities for the guards and their families.

Bank robber Allen West first discovered that the concrete of the back walls of their cells had disintegrated so much from age and the salt-water air that he could indeed penetrate the walls using just a simple tool. How did the guards not hear the digging? Apparently the men did their digging during music hour, when most of the other inmates would play their instruments so loudly that the guards couldn't hear what was going on.

West devised the plan along with the other 3 bank robbers, Frank Morris, and John and Clarence Anglin, making decoy dummy heads for their cell beds. The heads were made out of wire and cement powder, and covered with human hair taken from the prison barbershop. In that way, the warders making their regular head checks would be fooled into thinking the prisoners were asleep in their own beds.

Warder's view of the dummy head

They used many raincoats to make the life jackets that would be need­ed in their raft. Without them, it seems no-one would risk crossing the cold water to reach safety at the other side of the bay. In June 1962, Frank Morris and John and Clarence Anglin (but not Allen West) succeeded in their historical prison escape when they dug their way out of Alcatraz. They were never seen again, so the three men either drowned at sea and their bodies were not found, or they got to land and hid out for the rest of their lives.

The concrete and steel gaol was closed in March 1963 because the original Victorian buildings were no longer sound, and it was far more expensive per capita to run than were other mainland prisons. In 1973, Alcatraz Island became part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The prison still stands, and millions of non-criminal visitors have since gone on tour boats to the island, as described by the National Park Service.

The timing of Mysteries at the Museum is perfect since an exhibition will be in San Francisco until the end of July, 2013. Alcatraz: Life on the Rock is a travelling museum exhibition that covers four themes: The Military Era, The Federal Penitentiary, The Native American Occupation and Preserving the Rock. Displays also tell the story of the families on Alcatraz, the gardens, the first light house on the West Coast and stories of the escapes. The original artefacts from Alcatraz include a letter from Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz, a key to the front gate of the cell house and brass knuck­les carried by a former guard. Either a former prisoner or former guard from Alcatraz Island will be available throughout the run of the exhibit.

Alcatraz: Life on the Rock Museum 
Photo credit: MuseumPlanning




10 comments:

iancochrane said...

Enjoyed the post. Still recall being engrossed with the Burt Lancaster `Bird man' film - an amazing story.
Cheers, ic

Parnassus said...

Hi Hels, I wanted to take to tour of Alcatraz when in California, but so far have not been able to work it in.

The program Mythbusters duplicated the famous escape, with lots of interesting commentary, and it can be seen on Youtube:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kT6uqdNFjfM
for part 1, or just search: Mythbusters Alcatraz.
--Road to Parnassus

WeTravel said...

The island is very steep, which was great for stopping inmates from escaping, but it means that visitors need to be fit and to wear solid shoes. There is an electric shuttle that can overcome the climb, but it is only for people with a physical disability.

Hels said...

Ian

oh me too!! The only problem with Hollywood films is how much is true and how much should we assume is there exclusively for its dramatic impact. Robert Stroud was apparently a vicious crim, not a caring and misunderstood middle aged man.

Hels said...

Parnassus

If you are planning to be in San Francisco for only a few days, be sure to book on the ferry well ahead. Swimming out to the island was shown to be cold and shark infested :)

Thanks for the Youtube reference.

Linda said...

Great post. I saw the movie "Escape from Alcatraz" and read several articles about it. Thank you so much for sharing.

Hels said...

WeTravel

good point. Prisons on remote and rugged islands were meant to be inhospitable places !! Think of Devil’s Island in French Guiana. Or shark infested Coiba Island in Panama.

Hels said...

Linda

sometimes top quality tv programmes and films, perhaps accidentally viewed, can set us onto more serious reading. I love it.

Leon and Sue Sims said...

I lived in SF in the summer of 79 as a racing cyclist. Never actually got to the Rock but did sail by it.

Hels said...

Leon and Sue,

My son, daughter in law and four grandchildren have moved to near San Francisco for a couple of years. I am not happy that they can only visit Melbourne once a year, but at least it will be delightful to visit them near San Francisco Bay. The area is gorgeous.. but I don't know about racing around the Bay on a bike!