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.
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
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
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
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.