World’s most famous prison lies in the seemingly peaceful bay of San Francisco. The federal prison on the rocky island was highly feared by the United States’ most wanted criminals, a final destination for some. Escaping? Impossible! Or at least that’s what you think…
The large multiple-story concrete building on the isolated island looks more grim every bit I get closer to it. The Federal Prison which housed the US’ most notorious prisoners between 1934 and its closure in 1963 dominates the small island on which guards and their families used to live. The building, the rainy weather, the howling wind and the myths around it…, it all makes me feel blue when I disembark the ferry and step on its quay on which a few large sea gulls sit through the pouring rain.
I shelter myself in the decaying building and enter the room where new inmates were stripped down from their clothes, and given the prisoner uniform. Rows and rows of rusty shower-heads dot the ceiling. A bit further Officer Patrick Mahoney welcomes me in the heart of Alcatraz: 3-story high cell blocks rise above me.
I feel a cold draft in my neck that causes a shiver down my spine on this miserable spring day. The cell block is tedious and damp. I have a hard time picturing how cold the winter must have been with absolutely no heating. In front of me a seemingly endless row of concrete cubicles is closed off by countless bars of steel through which the wind teasingly blows.
B block, one of the three. I roam amongst the individual cells, maybe the only luxury on this rock. Sexual harassment was common in every federal prison with shared cells… Standing in one of the 336 identical cells and spreading my arms, I touch both walls. For all furniture, a toilet, a small sink and a bed. For a few lucky ones, a small table and a stool.
For all privacy, nothing. Cells face each other and each inmate would have at least a dozen pair of eyes looking straight into his cell at any time, whether on the toilet, sleeping or else.
Even less bendable than the cell bars were the rules of Alcatraz. Officer Patrick Mahoney states a few of the 53 of them with a serious tone in his strict voice:
You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Anything else that you get is a privilege. You earn your privileges by conducting yourself properly.
If you make groundless complaints for the purpose of creating dissatisfaction and/or stirring up trouble …you will be subject to disciplinary action.
One of the toughest must have been to not speak to each other. Violation of this rule would result in punishment. One of the punishments could be a ticket to the D-block. There 46 roomier, warmer and private cells awaited the most rebellious inmates. Prisoners would be locked up, sometimes in total darkness for weeks, being allowed out to shower and exercise once a week only. No visits, no mail, no work and no meals with other prisoners…
While most prisoners would obey by the rules and often be transferred back to lower-security federal jails, some hardcore gangsters such as Al Capone spent quite a bit of time in the feared D-block. They were broken down in this block with no other goal than punishment. Rehabilitation was not for the inmates of Alcatraz.
Good and long standing behavior resulted in earning access to the library, to musical instruments, or personal visits from family members, or even work to send some money home or to save up a bit.
For the hardcore rebellious inmates, the only way out was escaping, or trying to. A total of 36 men tried during 14 serious attempts. Most were caught back fast, six were shot dead during their escape, and two drowned. One of the most legendary attempts (made even more famous by the 1979-movie Escape from Alcatraz by Don Siegel starring Clint Eastwood) involved three men: Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers. Sentenced for bank robberies and sent to Alcatraz after earlier escape attempts they tricked the guards with dummy heads they made from papier-mâché and human hair stolen from the barber shop. They placed these dummies in their beds so that they would not go missing during the night count. By the time their escape was discovered, only in the morning, they had made their way out the air vents which they had enlarged by scraping the concrete out for months with self-made scrapers welded from stolen spoons. To cover up the damage at the rear wall of their cells they manufactured fake pieces of wall with painted match boxes. Through the holes they dug they could reach an unguarded utility corridor through which they climbed the pipes to the top of the cell-block, gained access to the roof through another air vent that they opened earlier to smoothen their escape. Via a drainpipe they made it outside the building and then to the choppy waves and hazardous currents of the bay on which they embarked on self-made rafts from rain jackets into the darkness on their way to freedom…
They were never found. The FBI case was closed after 20 years of investigation but U.S. Marshalls are still investigating it. Will the tides change and evidence for a successful escape be found? If so it will change the status of the inescapable island once and for all.
Text and photographs: Marcella van Alphen
- Book ahead and way in advance if you can. Tours are often fully booked and you don’t want to get disappointed.
- On the day of the tour make sure to show up at least half an hour prior to your departure time. Boats fill up fast, in our case showing up 20 minutes earlier the queue was so long that we were put on the next boat, despite the ticket for an earlier departure time.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.
More than just visiting the former cell blocks, Alcatraz is an attraction in itself for birdwatching as it is home to many nesting birds. The beautifully black-crowned night heron and snowy white egrets are Alcatraz’s picturesque residents. Seagulls eagerly claim the rocks and ruins of what once were the family homes of the guards and officers. Many birds on Alcatraz live in colonies and are safe from predators here. They hunt for food in the tidal pools and feed on plants growing around the edges of the island. Rangers take visitors around the island pointing out to the different birds and vegetation. In huge contrast with the re decaying concrete of the buildings are the colorful flowers in the garden which are maintained by volunteers.
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