I had an interesting experience a few days ago, to share with you. With friends visiting from Europe, one tends to see tourist spots that you just don’t visit in a city where you live. I’ve lived in San Francisco for a very long time, but have never been to visit Alcatraz, the federal prison on an island in the bay, which has been a National Park, and highly visited tourist attraction for many years. The thought of visiting jail cells always seemed depressing, so I’d never been there, but it was on my friends’ list of must sees, and their son was anxious to see it. So we bundled up on a Saturday morning, anticipating cold, windy weather, went down to the dock where the boat leaves from, and it turned out to be a gloriously sunny day. There is a sort of ferry boat that makes the one mile trip from the city to the island, and there were several hundred tourists on it. Once arrived, a National Park Ranger directs you where to go, and a few minutes later after a short hike up the hill (there is also a sort of open jitney that will drive you up), we got kitted out with recorded audio tours, and set out to see the inside of the prison. The tour we took was of the main block of prison cells, and within a few minutes, for me anyway, it became one of those sobering tours that not only teaches your local history, but gives you an inside view of human misery.
I’m sure that the inmates of Alcatraz (which functioned as a prison from 1934 to 1963 for hardened male federal criminals), I’m sure that they weren’t a lovely group of people, but the thought of humans in tiny pens, barely bigger than the cots they slept on was disturbing. The cells were 5 x 9 feet, and 7 feet tall, with a tiny cot, a sink, an open toilet, and a tiny shelf, and that was it. I don’t think they could have walked around the bed. Twice a week they walked around the outdoor yard for two and a half hours of exercise and fresh air, and the rest of the time they were in single occupancy cells. And that was their lot if they behaved well. If not, they were sent to the “Treatment Unit”, more commonly known as the hole, where they would spend several months in a slightly larger cell, but kept in total darkness, as a form of punishment, and only got out of their cell for an hour a week. And that was it. In the normal areas, for well behaved prisoners, they could sign up for books at the library, or take correspondence courses. The tour was narrated by old guards of the prison, and some old prisoners, to give you perspective from both sides. And enticingly, from “The Rock” as they called it, the island that Alcatraz sits on, only a mile away they could see the sparkling lights of the city. Any escape from the Island was allegedly impossible, due to the strong currents in the Bay, and the sharks who inhabit it. It was an incredibly bleak place to visit. The only good news for them was that they were housed one man to a cell, so at least in their cells, they didn’t have to worry about attacks from a hostile or dangerous cell mate. And one of the things that shocked me was that among the prisoners who were sent there were several for tax evasion. Although it’s certainly not okay and illegal to avoid one’s taxes, it was nonetheless horrifying to think that cheating on your taxes could land in you a hopelessly awful place like that. Its most famous prisoner was Al Capone, and a number of others we’ve all heard of, among the famous criminals of the last 80 years. But penning men up in such tiny cells seemed an extraordinary act of cruelty, and must have been a truly devastating existence. Perhaps they deserved it, but human compassion didn’t seem to enter into the scheme of things. And in those days, with less stringent laws about abuse, one can easily imagine that faced with an overzealous guard or officer, there must have been some severe punishments meted out, with nothing to stop them.
I’m not one of those bleeding hearts who believes that prisoners should be coddled and spoiled at the tax payers’ expense, and I have myself been the victim of crimes on more than one occasion, in both cases crimes that were severe enough to land the perpetrators in prison. But those agonizing small cells I saw at Alcatraz seemed bereft of humanity, any creature comfort, or compassion. Some of the men who were sent there were there for 18 or 20 years, and I would think you could go mad in a cell that size or in total darkness for many months in the Treatment Unit. It certainly wouldn’t make the inmates better suited to society, but rather less so, angrier and more dangerous, or maybe only hopeless. Visitors were very quiet, walking from one area, and one grim cell to the next, listening to the tour.
There was a period of the prison’s history that wasn’t mentioned, but I remember. The prison closed its doors as a prison forever in 1963, and I believe it remained guarded but uninhabited for several years. From 1969 to 1971 it became the object of major media attention, when a group of Native Americans took over the island and the prison, and exercised squatters rights there. I asked one of the rangers about it, and he said they are not supposed to mention it. Perhaps it was an embarrassment that they were able to take it over and remain there for two years. I don’t recall how the siege ended.
Also, during the years that the prison was functioning, The Warden, guards and their families and children lived there on the Island. So there was a sort of village of non-prisoners living on the Island, and I imagine it must have been a depressing place to grow up, in the shadow of the prison, on an island, and in San Francisco’s usually bleak, windy, chilly, foggy weather.
There was considerable mention of two escapes that were orchestrated there, which I found interesting. One was quite a large attempt that failed and left three guards and two prisoners dead, and I imagine that those who attempted the escape and organized it were severely punished. And the second attempt was close to the time when the prison closed, perhaps a few years before. Three men had apparently planned it with attention to every detail, and that time, they were successful. They managed to get out of their cells, reach the roof, and then disappeared. The three men were never found, and obviously left the island, presumably swimming, unless they had a boat to pick them up. The mystery of where those three men went was never solved. No trace of them was ever found, neither on land, or drowned in the water. It would seem that if they had drowned, they would have washed up somewhere, but they didn’t. Some believe that they died in the icy water, swept away by the currents, or eaten by sharks. Others believe that they made it to freedom, and went on to lead good lives with new identities. And I have to admit, although I believe in criminals being brought to justice and even being imprisoned, but after touring their cells for two hours, and listening to the hardships of their lives there, I hoped that they made it to freedom. If so, they earned it. And then, still thinking about them, I quietly got on the boat to go back to the city. It’s a tourist spot worth visiting, but certainly not a happy one, and a tribute to human misery, which is always sad to see. And all I could think of were the three men who had tried to swim to freedom from “The Rock”. I hope they made it.