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  • Day16

    Alcatraz

    September 14, 2019 in the United States ⋅ ☀️ 21 °C

    A mile out into San Francisco Bay lies a rocky outcrop known the world over as Alcatraz Island. It has a long and notorious history and began life as a civil war fort in the 1850s, built by the US Army as part of its western defence plan against Confederate raiders. By the 1900s the civil war was long gone and it’s defences had become obsolete, so it was decommissioned, but Alcatraz has been a prison since those early days both for Confederate soldiers, Yankee deserters and Native American warriors captured during the the various Indian Wars. It was not until the Great Depression of the 1930s that the Department of Justice took over responsibility for Alcatraz, opening it as a Federal Penitentiary
    In 1934. Of the 1545 men who did time on Alcatraz, only a handful were notorious, among them Al ‘Scarface’ Capone, George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, Alvin ‘Creepy’ Karpis and Robert Stroud ‘ the Birdman of Alcatraz’. The vast majority of the inmates had been escape risks and troublemakers in other prison populations. Possibly because of its isolation, few visitors and secrecy, Alcatraz earned the reputation of being tough and with miserable living conditions. Certainly the routine was hard and the building stark and bleak, this being a maximum security facility, but it was clean and the food good. Only 14 prisoners ever attempted to escape and none succeeded. Prisoners arrived in chains and were issued with a blue uniform after showering and taken to their 9’ by 5’ cell. On the bed were the rules and regulations of the prison and
    No 5 stated “You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Anything else you get is a privilege.” This was the reality of life within the toughest of US Penitentiary, Alcatraz Island.
    The island is now a National Park and managed accordingly. There are over a million visitors annually. Your journey begins at Pier 33 along with a boat full of visitors and the journey across the bay takes approximately 10 minutes. The crossing is choppy, currents vicious, the water cold and the island is foreboding on approach. The concrete cell block sits high on the citadel of the island with a variety of facilities placed around it. There are electrical sheds, the guardhouse, military chapel, a morgue, a lighthouse, the warden’s house, a general store and officers club, barracks and apartments for the guards and their families and perhaps most surprising of all gardens, planted by the families who lived here in a tight, small, village like community. Most of these are now in quite a dilapidated condition and as you make your way up the long steep walk to the cell block, it is hard to imagine children playing and normal life continuing around this Penitentiary, so far removed from everyday living. As part of your visit you are given an audio guide which is first class in the picture it paints of life here and the inmates incarcerated within.
    I was reminded of our visit to Robyn Island off Cape Town, although there the conditions were undoubtedly harsher, but the principle is the same. In each cell is a lavatory, a rudimentary bed, blankets and pillow, a metal stool attached to the wall and a similar small ledge like table.
    No personal belongings were allowed unless you complied and behaved, when some privileges were then introduced. Two communal showers were allowed per week and meals were taken leg shackled in the dining room, where you had 20 minutes to eat your meal. The wind whistles through the building at all times and bad behaviour resulted in solitary confinement or even locking up in one of the six hell holes permanently in the dark. It is chilling, but men found ways to survive and cope. Surprisingly, bridge was a popular occupation and those men allowed to do so, would spend hours outside in the cold quadrangle playing.
    In many ways, I think one of the most difficult aspects of being imprisoned here would have been the close proximity to one of the liveliest and attractive cities in the USA. The views across to the mainland, the Golden Gate Bridge and Bay Bridge are beautiful and it is said that on New Years Eve after lights out at 9.30, the inmates could hear the revelry onshore, voices and laughter carried out on the wind, only reminding them of their isolation. The prison was closed in 1963 by the then Attorney General Robert F Kennedy, due to increasing costs and maintenance. This was a fascinating visit, well worth making and we arrived back on the Wharf perhaps rather more thoughtful than we had left. In search of a restorative cup of coffee we came across the latest dog episode. A seemingly normal couple pushing a largish brown bull dog type dog in a candy pink pushchair, with matching harness and frilly headpiece. If I had had the nerve, I would have asked if I could have taken a photograph, but feared I would have been unable to keep a straight face!
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