Alcatraz was a factory – three storeys of cells for reprogramming criminals.
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.
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.
Those who wouldn’t behave in the mainland prisons were sent here. It was ruthlessly disciplined, closely guarded and, apparently, drainingly monotonous.
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.
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).
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.
Perhaps they gave some measure of comfort or pleasure to the inmates. Or perhaps their presence went unnoticed in the crush of other concerns.
With the dissociation that time brings, even that wrought by violence may, arguably, have a degree of aestheticism.
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.
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.
In 1973 the island was brought to its latest incarnation: a museum showcasing its past.
Change: We observe, resist, embrace and struggle with it. In this, Alcatraz reflects and stimulates our humanity.
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.