Alcatraz Evening tour 5/28/17

Alcatraz Island, a mile out from San Francisco, became a military fortress in 1858, then a Civil War prison in 1861. The island is home to the oldest operating lighthouse on the west coast, first built in 1854. Alcatraz served as the notorious federal penitentiary from 1934 until 1963. While the national historic site is free, the ferry ride will cost you – and they book up early! These are from the waiting-to-board area. Doubleclick any photo for full size.

Views from the ferry:

Approaching Alcatraz:

This “Indians Welcome” graffiti is from the 18-month occupation by the Tribes of All Nations group from 1969-1971, protesting The Indian Termination Act, which forced Native Americans to move to cities and assimilate, in an attempt to end the special relationship between the U.S. government and Native nations. They also demanded reparation for the many treaties broken by the US government and for the lands which were taken from so many tribes. During the occupation, President Nixon rescinded the Indian termination policy, and established a new policy of self-determination, in part as a result of the publicity and awareness created by the occupation. Graffiti remains, and is regularly repainted by relatives/descendants of the occupiers, to preserve this piece of the island’s history.

Some buildings are in disrepair; others are being renovated.

Alcatraz has some lovely gardens on its slopes:

More Native graffiti:

The tour includes a free audio-guide, told by a narrator and by actual former inmates and guards. Chilling and fascinating. No attempt at rehabilitation, only punishment. “Break the rules and you go to prison; break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz.”

The hallways between cells are named for famous streets, like Broadway and Michigan Avenue. The cells housed some famous prisoners, like Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, Robert “The Birdman” Stroud, and even Whitey Bulger ’59-’62.

We learned about a lot of escape attempts. If you could dig your way out of your cell, you faced the most dangerous challenge – swimming the frigid choppy waters to San Francisco. A total of 36 prisoners made 14 escape attempts, two men trying twice; 23 were caught alive, six were shot and killed during their escape, two drowned, and five are listed as “missing and presumed drowned.” One escape used this spacer to spread the uncuttable bars apart:

Inmates did take up hobbies to pass the monotonous time – including crochet (pink!) and painting.

Here’s the guards’ uniform:

Most prisoners were assigned to work in various jobs on the island – laundry, factory, etc, and did get some recreation time outdoors:

Prisoner accounts said that when the wind was right, they could hear the sounds from the city in their cells, especially the sounds of celebrations on New Year’s Eve.

A dummy was used to hide one escape, made through that tunnel carved under the sink through the ventilation grate:

Prisoners did go to the mess hall for meals; the kitchen knives were stored on this rack with outlines, so guards could tell immediately if a knife was missing:

Prisoners who broke the rules at Alcatraz were placed in The Hole, a block of bare cells, secluded in total darkness for 23 hours/day. Birdman spent 6 years in solitary in The Hole.

“Its size was approximately that of a regular cell-9 feet by 5 feet by about 7 feet high. I could just touch the ceiling by stretching out my arm… You are stripped nude and pushed into the cell. Guards take your clothes and go over them minutely or what few grains of tobacco may have fallen into the cuffs or pockets. There is no soap. No tobacco. No toothbrush, The smell – well you can describe it only by the word ‘stink.’ It is like stepping into a sewer. It is nauseating. After they have searched your clothing, they throw it at you. For bedding, you get two blankets, around 5 in the evening. You have no shoes, no bed, no mattress-nothing but the four damp walls and two blankets. The walls are painted black. Once a day I got three slices of bread-no-that is an error. Some days I got four slices. I got one meal in five days, and nothing but bread in between. In the entire thirteen days I was there, I got two meals… I have seen but one man get a bath in solitary confinement, in all the time that I have been there. That man had a bucket of cold water thrown over him.” – Henri Young testifying his experiences in “The Hole” at Alcatraz during his 1941 trial.

In 1963, due to the costs of maintaining/repairing Alcatraz, the prison was closed:

We stayed for a presentation on Shivs & Shanks – the weapons prisoners made and how they used them – usually to intimidate other prisoners:

The final presentation was on the revolutionary design to the cell doors – guards could open/close them from a contraption at the end of the cellblock. No more standing in front of cell juggling keys and getting attacked by an inmate.

In the dark, our docent explained the doors and treated us to the intimidating sound of the cells slamming shut:

Fascinating – highly recommend the evening tour. And still shaking my head at the inhumane treatment.

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