The History Of Alcatraz Essay, Research Paper
The History of Alcatraz
Although Alcatraz sits in the middle of San Francisco Bay, only a little over a mile from the city, the island seemed as distant as if it were a thousand miles out to sea. The island seems uninviting and because of its unappeal, it played an important role in the history of California. The island had a number of uses. Alcatraz was the site of a powerful fortress, a military prison and a federal prison.
The island is surrounded by treacherous cross currents and five-knot tides with a deadly undertow. The water temperature around Alcatraz averages fifty-four degrees which is frigid enough to induce hypothermia. In addition to the freezing temperature, there are occasional sharks and whirlpools strong enough to drown a man. Although not appealing to a vacationer, the geography of the area was perfect for a prison as it made escape nearly impossible (Redden, 165).
The California gold rush spurred the building of a lighthouse on the island. Wealth from gold increased San Francisco?s ship traffic and population and a guiding light was needed to take the ships safely through the bay. In 1850, the military used the island as a defense. Places for cannons and gun placements were carved out of the land slopes. More than four hundred soldiers were stationed on the island, guarding it from outside attack. The military?s Rodman cannon could shoot fifteen inch, 440 pound cannonballs as far as three miles. The military moved off the island when the defense system became outdated (Golden Gate National Park Association, Discover Alcatraz, 2).
During the Civil War, soldiers convicted of desertion, theft, rape, murder and treason were imprisoned on the island. During the Spanish War of 1898 military convicts were housed there. Later, groups of Native American activists occupied the island on three different occasions. Their stays ranged from four hours to nineteen months. The Native Americans claimed the island for the ?Indians of All Tribes? and offered to buy the island from the government for $24 in beads, colored cloth and other goods. Their point in the offer was to buy the island at the same price Manhattan Island was bought years before. During the Great Depression of the 1930?s, The Department of Justice wanted the island for a maximum-security facility. Alcatraz reopened on January 1, 1934 as a federal penitentiary. (Golden Gate National Park Association, Discover Alcatraz. 3, 10).
During the twenty-nine year history of the prison, 1550 prisoners were imprisoned. Alcatraz was Uncle Sam?s answer to the most notorious public enemies. Notorious prisioners like Al ?Scarface? Capone, ?Doc? Barker, Alvin ?Creepy? Karpis, George ?Machine Gun? Kelly, and Robert Stroud ?Birdman of Alcatraz? were kept here. Inmates who had proved problems in other prisons by escape risks and labeled troublemakers were sent to Alcatraz for security reasons. The cost to the American taxpayer of housing one inmate was estimated at $20,000 a year. During the twenty-nine year history as a federal penitentiary, there were fourteen escape attempts and many deaths. During the escape attempts, seven men were shot to death and six men drowned (Golden Gate National Park Association, Discover Alcatraz, 9) ( Redden, 169) (Quillen, 164).
The prison itself was made up of two cell houses with fifty-eight windowless one-man cells per tier and one hundred seventy-four cells per block. The inmate population never exceeded two hundred sixty-nine prisoners and only about six to eight new inmates were admitted each year. The turnover of prison population was small. Clifford Redden, America?s notorious ?flash bandit? spent more than twenty years in penal institutions, including two stretches of time at Alcatraz. Redden stated ?this mausoleum for the living dead was truly a soul-destroying, heart-hardening and sanity-shaking experience for its tough-fibered tenant.? Alcatraz was a true version of hell on earth. The daily misery made death look attractive to some inmates. Upon entering the prison doors, a doctor awaited the incoming inmate. The prisoner received delousing of head and public hair, followed by a mouth, ear and rectum search. After a shower the new inmate was given his prison fatigues and then walked to his prison cell. ?With a crash, the steel gate slammed shut with a sound that seemed to bring finality to everything that life had to offer.? All cell bars were made of tool-proof steel and were hacksaw resistance. Every cell contained a metal table fastened to the wall, a cot-sized iron frame bed with a small pull-out beneath, a lumpy mattress, pillow, coarse bed sheets, a thin army surplus blanket, a seat less toilet, a sink with cold running water and a tin drinking cup (Redden, 169, 174) (Quillen, 7).
Inmates were awakened at 6:30 a.m. After washing, dressing and tidying their cells, they were counted then marched to a twenty-minute breakfast. Some men went to work assignments until 11:40. Working in prison industries was considered a privilege. Some possible jobs included carpentry, shoe repair, or working in the glove factory, laundry room or brush factory. Inmates could earn as much as $52 a month. Before returning from prison workshops, prisoners had to pass through a metal detector. .? Inmates made ?shivs? or narrow blades from brass or plastic which could not be detected by the machine and therefore, guards also searched randomly looking for weapons and contraband that slipped past ?the mechanical stool pigeon? (Golden Gate National Park Association, Discover Alcatraz, 12, 13).
Alcatraz inmates were fed better than in most other prisons. Steak was served twice weekly along with baked potatoes. Pork chops and milkshakes were served once a month. The dining hall was one of the most dangerous areas of the prison. Guards were unarmed for fear of a united group attack. The dining room had a ceiling of tear gas cylinders. The tear gas could be released by catwalk guards in the event of a mess hall riot. The dining hall was run strictly and the warden made sure the meals were well prepared. At the end of each twenty-minute meal, inmates were to lay their forks, spoons and knives on the table so a count could be made of all utensils as these could easily become weapons. After lunch inmates returned to their cells and were again counted at noon. They were then allowed to return to their work stations until 4:15 p.m. The prisoners were again counted, served dinner, then locked in their cells at 4:45 p.m. for the evening. Lights were out at 9:30 p.m. Thirteen counts were made in every twenty-four hour period. Inmates were permitted to shower twice a week and change clothes at that time. Before entering the shower inmates were required to pass through an electronic metal-detecting unit (Redden, 169) (Golden Gate National Park Association, Discover Alcatraz, 10).
Disobeying rules led to solitary in Block D. Cells number 9 through 14 in Block ?D? were often referred to as ?the Hole.? There was no light and the cell was windowless with solid doors and steel walls. The cell was always in complete darkness. The only human contact came when two meals were served through a slot in the door and when the inmate was led out for a weekly shower. Most inmates spent no more than five days in the Hold, but some were confined for months and years. During these times especially, death looked attractive to inmates due to the daily infliction of psychological torture. Prisoners in the regular cellblocks sometimes opted for the ?back door parole.? This was achieved by hanging themselves, slashing their arteries or diving head-first into eternity from the cellblock?s third-tier gallery onto the polished floor below. Jim Quillen, prisoner #AZ586 said, ?Nothing could blot out the knowledge of what and where you were, or the certainty that this was all that life held for you in the future. Man was never intended to live as a caged animal; I often speculated as to whether life was worth living under these conditions? (Golden Gate National Park Association, Escapes, 9).
Less than 10% of Alcatraz inmates received visits from loved ones. The majority of wives and parents from the East coast could not face up to the long drive by automobile, nor could they afford the round-trip fare by bus, train, or plane. All inmate visitors were restricted to the spouse, blood relative, or the inmate?s attorney. Visitors faced inmates separated by a two-inch pane of shatterproof glass. Visitors and prisoners could talk through a telephone and all conversations were monitored (Redden, 173).
Increased maintenance costs led Attorney Robert F. Kennedy to close Alcatraz in 1963. Prisoners were transferred to other correctional prisons and Alcatraz was left to deteriorate. Today the island is no longer a forbidden place but a national park, open to anyone who wants to retrace its many years of interesting history. Remnants of each period of history can be seen today. The National Park Service is working to ensure that these traces are protected and that the island?s many years of history are told (Golden Gate National Park Association, Discover Alcatraz, 12).