Alcatraz – the history
On good advice, we have pre-booked our Alcatraz trip. Since 1973, it has been a National Park and there is only one ferry company authorised to actually stop on the the island. So, armed with forks and spoons to dig, we joined our tour at 10.30 prompt and boarded for the short cruise over the island. It is such an impressive way to arrive there and really gives you a sense of the isolation of the place.
There are so many facts and dates in my tiny head that I don’t know where to start but here is a short list to start with:
- It was named in 1775 by a Spanish explorer “La Isla de los Alcatraces”. The island of the Pelicans.
- It housed the first lighthouse on the west coast from 1854
- From 1861 to 1934 it was a fortification that also house military prisoners
- From 1934 to 1963 it operates as a federal penitentiary
- In 1969 Native Americans occupied the island for 19 months to set up an Indian Reservation
Alcatraz – the myths
- Robert Stroud “the Birdman of Alcatraz” kept birds on the island. Not true. His real nickname was “Bird Doctor of Leavenworth” (a penitentiary where he had previously served time). The Burt Lancaster film “Birdman of Alcatraz was largely fiction.
- The penitentiary was hated by convicts. Not 100% true. The warden believed in the inmates having good food and privileges such as a library. Single cells were not common in prisons during this era so some convicts even requested transfers to the Island.
- The convicts housed in Alcatraz were not necessarily those who had committed the most violent or heinous crimes, but they were the convicts most in need of an attitude adjustment. They had bribed guards and attempted escapes in previous prisons, and a trip to Alcatraz was intended to get them to follow the rules so that they could return to other federal facilities
- It was impossible for escaping inmates to survive the swim to the mainland across the cold, swift waters of San Francisco Bay. But it did happen. In 1962, prisoner John Paul Scott greased himself with lard, squeezed through a window and swam to shore. He was so exhausted upon reaching the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge that police discovered him lying unconscious in hypothermic shock. Today, hundreds complete the 1.5-mile swim annually during the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon
Alcatraz – escape attempts
In its 29 years of operation, there were 14 attempts to escape from Alcatraz prison involving 36 inmates. Officially, every escape attempt failed, and most participants were either killed or quickly re-captured.
The two most famous are:
- Clarence Carnes, Bernard Coy, Joseph Paul Cretzer, Marvin Hubbard, Sam Shockley, Miran Edgar Thompson. Coy, a Kentucky bank-robber and a cell house orderly on Alcatraz managed to take the gun cage in the main cell house and seize the two firearms held there. However, he could not get the key he needed to the yard door. The prisoners refused to surrender and Coy, Cretzer, Hubbard, and two prison guards were killed in the fighting, which ended two days later, on May 4, 1946.Carnes survived the “battle”, and because of his youth and because he refused to kill the guards when ordered to do so by his colleagues, he was spared the death penalty; instead, he received a life sentence. Shockley and Thompson were sentenced to death and subsequently executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin in 1948.
- Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin successfully carried out one of the most intricate escape, on June 11, 1962. The prisoners chiseled away the moisture-damaged concrete from around an air vent leading to a utility corridor, using tools such as a metal spoons and forks soldered with silver from a dime and an electric drill improvised from a stolen vacuum cleaner motor. The noise was disguised by accordions, played during music hour (about 1 hour and a half), and their progress was concealed by false walls. Some believe that guards were in on the escape plan but this was never confirmed. They left papier-mâché heads in their cell bunks to give them more time when they.The official investigation by the FBI was helped by another prisoner, Allen West, who also was part of the escapees’ group but was left behind. West couldn’t fit through his hole so had to keep chipping to break through. (I told you the food was good.) When Morris and the Anglin brothers accelerated the schedule, West desperately chipped away at the wall; however, by the time he made it through the wall, his companions were gone. Articles belonging to the prisoners (including plywood paddles and parts of a raincoat raft) were later found floating in the bay, and the official report on the escape states that the prisoners drowned in the cold waters of the bay while trying to reach the mainland. However, there were sightings of the men over the years. Friends and family members have received many unsigned postcards and messages. The mother of the Anglin brothers received flowers anonymously every Mother’s Day and two very tall unusual women were reported to have attended her funeral before disappearing. The U.S. Marshall’s office is still investigating this case, which will remain open on all three escapees until their 100th birthdays. So how can officials say that every escape has failed?
We were totally enthralled by the audio tour of the cell block and amazed at the condition of cells that had been left dormant for coming up for 50 years. Access keys still dangling from the gun gallery. Part of the long abandoned guards strict security system. A lot of the island is inaccessible due to deterioration but that only adds to the atmosphere of desolation.
The history of it’s former days was particularly apparent in the Exercise Yard. The base ball square was still visible. The guard towers and viewing platform high up around the exterior of the yard, although falling away, still visually giving that sense of a dark sinister history. In stark contrast, other parts of the island seem to have new life breathed into them. Lots of nesting seabirds in the rocks and the former living quarters for the guards and their families had newly restored manicured gardens full of a variety of original flowering plants.
We reflected on the day while waited on the dock for our ferry to take us the mile and a half back to the city. Such an easy thing for us to do today but for former inmates years of planning, digging and risk taking to even get past their cell doors. My parting thoughts as the ferry pulled away was a fact on more or less the last presentation we looked at. The USA has 5% of the world’s population but currently has 25% of the world’s prison population. Should “The Rock” be reopened as a deterrent? If we overstay our visas, I might need to lose a few pounds and practice my papier-mâché skills.