The Alcatraz Experience
By Rafiq Ebrahim
Glen Ellyn, IL

You are looking at a small cell in which are a tiny cot with hard, thin mattress, a washbasin and a commode, a little table and a wooden chair. They have placed a dummy on the cot. Your imagination captures a picture of Al Capone - that notorious gangster of the thirties who was rolling in ill-gotten wealth and enjoying the luxuries of life - lying on this cot in a prisoner’s uniform. You feel sorry at his fate before wondering at the justice of Nature.
Besides Al Capone, many other famous criminals like George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Alvin Karpis, Doc Barker and Robert Shroud (the birdman of Alcatraz) all were put in this place, the place called Alcatraz, a 22-acre island prison so near to San Francisco, yet a world away.
Alcatraz, now a part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area is only minutes away from the fabulous city of San Francisco and its Fisherman’s wharf. To visit this island, you come to Pier 41 at the Fisherman’s Wharf, buy a ticket for 16 dollars, which provides for an audio tour, and board one of the commercial ferries. But before doing that you succumb to the temptation of having lunch at one of the myriads of seafood stalls and restaurants.
You arrive at the island in 10 to 12 minutes and set foot on the historic site. You get a glimpse of this once historic prison, now exhibiting ruined and crumbling buildings. The island was first used as a fort, then as a military prison, and finally as a federal penitentiary. You get an official map and guide to Alcatraz at a bookstore in the Information Area and see a historical slide show in the small auditorium. Now you proceed on a steep winding climb. You are given self-guiding audio equipment at the entrance of the cell house, before you come in and see the tiny units called cells where once hardened prisoners were kept under high security. You then move on to see the Dining Room, and a small balcony with a view of the sea, used as a recreation area for the prisoners. Then there is a Solitary Confinement Area where prisoners who break any rule are put in for a number of days. Here they would not get any external light, or anybody to talk to. Outside the cell area is an Exhibit Area where various items used in those days are put on display.
At last you come out and walk around the island and get breathtaking views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the city of San Francisco. You also see some crumpled buildings and little houses which were given to the prison officers and workers and their families to live in and socialize.
You leave the island with a sense of deep isolation suffered by the inmates, a punishment for the life of crime they led.

History of the Island
Some 3,000 years ago, Native Americans settled on this island and thrived on the rich harvest from the sea. Years later, Spanish people began to come and settle there. It was a Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala who gave the name Isla de los Alcatraces (Island of the pelicans) to the place, as it abounded with bird life, especially the pelicans. The United States government purchased the island in 1847 as they realized the importance of San Francisco Bay as a perfect site for seacoast defense. They built military fortress and a lighthouse on the island.
In 1861, Alcatraz became a military prison and served a dual role as defendant of the golden gate and as cell house for rebel army and navy officers. These rebels had to break stones and shovel sand with thick heavy chains on their legs. In 1898, a large number of prisoners from the Spanish American War filled the prison cells. The punishments were designed to repress these men, wear them down psychologically and break their spirit.
In 1933, due to the darkened reputation and the high cost of maintaining this military prison, it was decided to close down the prison. It was handed over to the Department of Justice. Alcatraz reopened as maximum-security federal penitentiary in 1934. Fearless gangsters and mobsters, who drove fast cars, outgunned small-town sheriffs and police, robbed banks, kidnapped and murdered people, were brought to Alcatraz once they were captured.
The harsh treatment given to these prisoners soon became the subject of public and press criticism, though the authorities maintained that living conditions were good. The cells were kept comfortably cool in summer and hot in winter. Bedding and clothing were frequently changed and meals were plentiful and nourishing. Adequate medical facilities were provided.
In 1935, a paroled Alcatraz prisoner, William Henry Ambrose, told reporters about the psychological torments: “Al Capone is burning up at the restriction… He has been in a hole (solitary) three or four times for talking. The ‘no talk’ is the hardest thing in Alcatraz life…Not a word can be spoken by any of the convicts in line, at work or in their cells… The helplessness of it gets to you…”
The released convicts continued to narrate their tales of inhuman treatment, and the press took up the issue seriously. Stories and articles about the harsh prison life filled up the pages of national dailies.

Escape from Alcatraz
During its twenty-nine-year federal penitentiary era, no inmate who escaped from the prison successfully made it off the island alive or without being recaptured. There were about fourteen escape attempts. On May 23, 1938, three convicts beat an officer to death with a claw hammer, but were stopped from escaping by another officer who shot two of them to death. In May of 1946, six inmates seized some weapons from a correctional officer and tried to blow up the prison and escape. US Marines and coast guards immediately came into action and began to bombard the cell house as thousands of people crowded on the shore to see this battle. Several inmates and officers died before peace could be restored.
A dramatic escape took place in June 1962 (which has been the subject of the book and movie Escape from Alcatraz). Frank Morris and two other inmates climbed the roof and slipped off the island and into the Bay. They were never captured. Many people believe that they were drowned, as some personal effects and makeshift equipment were later found floating in the Bay.
In 1963, the federal penitentiary was closed and the island was vacated. The reasons for this were given as ‘rising costs’ and ‘deteriorating building’.
From 1969 to 1971, Native American Activists occupied the island with an intention to draw public attention towards their plight and to build a Native American Cultural Center and University. They got half-hearted support from the authorities, but when some of these people began to destroy and deface the remains of the properties on the island, the government’s General Services Administration took over in 1972. The same year Alcatraz Island became part of the Golden Gate Recreational Area. It opened for public tours in 1973, and the birds, once disturbed by human residents, returned in large numbers.

 


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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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