Alcatraz: Our Mirror

Alcatraz was a factory – three storeys of cells for reprogramming criminals.

Alcatraz cells

But it wasn’t always so.

The island itself has passed through many phases. The tip of an underwater hill, it was for eons the almost-barren nesting site of birds. Native Americans began their intimate history with the island 10-20000 years ago. During the Californian gold rush and the Civil War (1861 – 1865) the island provided protection for San Francisco.


A model shows how guns encircled the island.

It was officially designated a miliary prison in 1861 and included the incarceration of Native Americans for resistance to government policies. In 1934 it transitioned to, and remained for 29 years, the federal prison of Hollywood legend.

Alcatraz exterior

Those who wouldn’t behave in the mainland prisons were sent here. It was ruthlessly disciplined, closely guarded and, apparently, drainingly monotonous.

Alcatraz cell

Some prisoners called the views of the city from the top deck of cells, a torture in itself. Laughter wafting over from San Francisco on New Year’s Eve, swept up the desolation that lack of freedom brings, as it crossed the chill, treacherous waters. No inmates received special privileges even if they had in previous gaols.

Fear and anger, hatred, depression and mental illness stalked the corridors.

This dangling key is the repository of power. Men killed for it and were killed themselves for doing so.Alcatraz key


The key hangs from the gun gallery which provides a straight shot along the corridors between the cells.


The dining room is another reminder of the dangers lurking (although there were relatively few incidents owing partly to the intentionally high quality of food).

Alcatraz menu

My father has a shadow-board in his shed for his tools. Here there was one for the knives so that any absences showed up immediately. In the audio tour (headsets are a must-have and free), an ex-guard described an incident when a knife did go astray and was put to use on an inmate.

Alcatraz kitchen

And yet, in this wretched place there are things of singularity or even beauty.Alcatraz exterior

Perhaps they gave some measure of comfort or pleasure to the inmates. Or perhaps their presence went unnoticed in the crush of other concerns.

Alcatraz exterior

   Alcatraz exterior

With the dissociation that time brings, even that wrought by violence may, arguably, have a degree of aestheticism.

Alcatraz window

In the midst of the austerity, and possibly because of the deprivation, some men chose to reshape themselves. From the crucible of their own darkness and disintegration they forged themselves afresh. It is a choice we are all faced with (usually to a lesser extent) from time to time.

Alcatraz cell D block

D Block cell. Total darkness when the door is shut = sensory deprivation.

They crocheted, played instruments, learnt needlepoint, painted, read and went to classes. * This book explores the lives of five men who spent time in Alcatraz for murder then claimed other aspects of themselves in order to live in ways that contribute to society.

The reshaping wrought by Alcatraz did not end there. “Indians of All Tribes” brought a profound change in government and public attitudes and treatment through their nineteen month occupancy beginning in 1969.

Alcatraz exterior

In 1973 the island was brought to its latest incarnation: a museum showcasing its past.

Alcatraz library

A baby’s nappy is changed in the library.

Change: We observe, resist, embrace and struggle with it. In this, Alcatraz reflects and stimulates our humanity.

Alcatraz exterior

Alcatraz Cruises are the official tour operators. Their price includes the return boat ride and time on the island. If you buy a City Pass, you have the option of swapping a harbour cruise for an Alcatraz cruise.

*(A friend of mine joked that the best attended classes were probably Spanish and boat-building, given the proximity of South America. One group of escapees headed off optimistically in a raft made from raincoats. They were never found.)

16 responses to “Alcatraz: Our Mirror

  1. Spooky. Intriguing. What did the key open?

    • It was a key to freedom but I don’t recall how much freedom or where it began. I am inclined to say the key opened the exercise yard but that doesn’t really make sense because prisoners would not be able to escape from there.

  2. I saw your post’s title last night, but didn’t read the rest until today. In the meantime, I thought a bit about the way in which how, why, and who we incarcerate is a fair reflection of the values of a society. 19th century debtor’s prisons in England came immediately to mind. The Victorians sending one of the greatest minds of the era – Oscar Wilde – to prison for being a ‘sodomite.’ The Turkish prison of “Midnight Express.” The relatively cushy ‘white collar’ prisons in the US, for people who embezzle millions rather than swiping a couple of hundred.
    If you hold up incarceration in the US as a mirror for the nation’s soul, the picture is very black. Literally. Incarceration rates for blacks – even for identical crimes – are 2-5 times higher than for whites. The US has by far the highest overall rate of incarceration in the world – 760 per 100,000. Israel is a distant second. Many prisons are privately run, for-profit business ventures. The free market at work. I could go on and on, but I won’t. It’s just that your post – even before I had read it – got me thinking. And thank you for that.
    By the way, the post itself was great!

    • Thanks for your thoughts, MM.
      In Australia we have a similar situation with higher incarceration rates for Aborigines than whites. Deaths in custody is also a huge issue though improving.
      You mention the early justice system of England which, of course, we inherited. My understanding is that those crimes which most affected the noble classes were the ones most heavily penalised. This has lead to what I see as a mismatch between the type of crime and the sentence meted in some cases. This is slowly changing due to societal pressure but that is a wheel which turns slowly.

  3. We loved the tour there … fascinating, yet eerie. Glad you got to make it there! So when you go back to SF, there’s still plenty to see and do!

  4. the photos and text capture brilliantly the history – and so much more – of Alcatraz. It is a place where I learned a lot (don’t panic, I was a tourist, honest) about humans, society, life and myself.
    Thanks for sharing this one.

  5. What a riveting post this is! I lapped up every word and drank in every photo. Maybe quite a lot of Americans are very familiar with the history of Alcatraz and have seen many photos of it too, but I’m English and although I’ve seen the film and know that it was famous and almost mythical and why, I knew nothing much about its past or what it actually looked like inside.

    A super read from start to finish AND I learned things. ‘Que demande le peuple?’ as our French cousins would say….

  6. That must have been a very impressive visit, it would have given me goosebumps to think of all the emotion that’s been shut inside that place.

  7. what a truly incredible and dreadful place to tour, I toured a very old prison in napier, nz, once and it was quite quite dreadful.. put me on the straight and narrow I must say! c

    • I toured what sounds like the Napier equivalent in Fremantle, Western Australia, once. Horrible feeling standing in the ‘reception’ room where the inmates changed civilian clothes for prison garb and left their belongings behind – often for years.

      • all that concrete and cold.. mostly it was cold, ancient chilling, ghostly, into your bones cold..fremantle, hmm, another penal gateway .. You know england – the weather is so damp and cold – I used to say to the locals you should have sent yourself to the colonies, not the criminals.. at least there is sun out there.. c

      • Haha, the English are making up for it now. Every English person I speak to out here comments on how much the weather means to them.

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