Remembering ‘The Rock’

By Willa Wick in Places, Events, & History

In 1775 a Spanish seafarer dubbed it the ‘Isle of Pelicans’.  This 22-acre hunk of rocky cliffs was ignored by society, then forgotten by society … and then they tried to ignore it.  But for nearly 100 years before its demise, the island reeked of torture and inhumane punishment.


Centuries ago the island was inhabited by American Indians, and then rebellious Indian Chiefs (among them Geronimo) were held there by force. In 1847 the U.S. army took notice of ‘The Rock’ and realized its strategic value as a military fortification. In 1849 the U.S. government took over this rocky out-cropping a mile and a half offshore from San Francisco, and built a lighthouse on it which went into service on June 1st, 1854 to safely guide ships through the bay.


Because of its natural isolation, surrounded by freezing waters and hazardous currents, Alcatraz, as it was then known, was considered by the U.S. Army as an ideal location for holding captives.  It took several years of laborious construction, but by 1861 the original fortress began receiving Civil War prisoners.  Alcatraz was the army’s first long-term prison which built its reputation as a tough detention centre ruling inmates with harsh confinement conditions and ironhanded disciplinary action.  Owing to increasing operational expenses, the Military decided to close the prison in 1934 and ownership shifted to the Department of Justice.


Since the beginning of time man has imprisoned his fellow man on small islands. Europe and the United States have had their share of sea bound dungeons (Deer Island in Boston Harbor, Welfare Island off Manhattan, and the Dry Tortugas (in the Gulf of Mexico west of the Florida Keys) which housed Samuel Mudd, the doctor who set the leg of John Wilkes Booth (Abraham Lincoln’s assassin).


By the end of Prohibition Alcatraz became a full-fledged dungeon, and was maximum security for the worst of the hoodlums that America had ever known.  The Rock was total seclusion for the nation’s most notorious law breakers.


In secrecy and under cover of darkness on October 11th, l934, boats delivering the first batch of harden criminals, crossed the two miles of water from the San Francisco shore.  137 of the toughest gunmen, handcuffed and leg-ironed, were guarded by 60 special agents of the FBI, U.S. Marshalls, and dozens of railway security men.  Among those first arrivals was Al Capone who was serving 10 years for Income Tax evasion.  There was also Machine Gun Kelly who had made many a front page headline, and Roy Gardner the last of the great western train robbers.  It was felt it took a place like Alcatraz to hold these well known thugs and keep them apart from their ruffian friends, relatives and gangs.  Alcatraz was a symbol of punishment, a place of unkindness, brute force, and inhumanity.  Most were not well known gangsters but rather prisoners who refused to conform to rules and regulations at other federal institutions.  It was also the place for those who were violent and dangerous, or those who posed an escape risk.


At The Rock security was the name of the game.  There was a code of silence.  There were no recreational or rehabilitation facilities.  The welcoming message was that they were to obey all the rules.  Failure to do so would result in spending 10 days in “the hole”.  That was isolation with only bread and water, no window, and sleep was on cement.  Following that the inmate was upgraded to solitary confinement with a night time bunk, bread and water for breakfast and before bed, plus a noon meal of whatever was served in the mess hall for others.  After ‘solitary’ he goes once more to his regular cell but is red tagged for three months and has to work himself back up to standard fare.


Once officials determined a prisoner was no longer a threat and could follow rules and protocol (usually after a stay of five years good behaviour) he could be transferred back to another penitentiary to finish his sentence.


An inmate lived in a 5 x 9 foot cement cell with a small sink and running cold water, a toilet and a cot.  Each was permitted one visitor a month approved by the Warden and monitored by intercom.  No physical contact was allowed.  A rule of silence (the men were not allowed to talk to one another except at meal time) was strictly enforced.


At Alcatraz an inmate had four rights – food, clothing, shelter, and medical/dental care.  Everything else was a privilege and had to be earned i.e. movies twice monthly on Sunday afternoons.


For these most hardened criminals there was a ratio of one guard to every three prisoners as compared to other penal systems where the ratio was one guard to every twelve inmates.


Much later one guard who had been retired several years reflected on the treatment as caring for a herd of horses – let them out in the morning, harness them, take them to the field to work, at 4:00 round them up, count them, head for the barn, feed them and then lock them in their cells.  The next morning at 6:30 the same thing starts all over again……and that went on day after day, year after year.  He admitted that guarding was the worst four years of his life – a total waste.


Some inmates actually did try to rehabilitate themselves with good behaviour.  Alvin Karpis (nicknamed Creepy) was at Alcatraz for 33 years, nearly the entire existence of ‘the rock’.  After release he moved to Montreal and became a successful, wealthy and respected business man.  He also admits that although he made the best of it, it really wasn’t necessary for the government to inflict that kind of treatment – no watches, no newspapers, no radio, and no contact with the outside world.


May 1st, 1946 was an eerie night with silence in the cells, few tickets to see the doctor, no sparring back and forth with the guards and an overall air of high tension.  At noon the next day began a riot that marked the beginning of the end for Alcatraz.  Guards and command officers were surprised, slugged, kicked and tortured to give up the all-important keys to cell blocks and escape areas.  The sirens sounded and all of San Francisco rushed to windows to see what was happening.


The Warden’s subordinates, the FBI, and the army were flown in to quell the rampage.  The marines, who were waiting off shore, were taunted and called names by the outside prison workers.  They were ready to shoot the lot of them.  It took three days and three nights to gain some measure of control.  In the end a helicopter landed on the roof, a hole was drilled, and charges were lowered – killing the three who initiated the riot and had caused so much confusion and destruction.


The Rock was a monument to incompetency which produced monsters, and expensive ones – it cost five times more to house an inmate at Alcatraz than at regular penitentiaries.  It was 10 years later before the remainder of the prisoners and guards were moved to a more humane area with no tidewater dungeons, no sand flies nor rats.


Alcatraz was officially closed on March 21st, 1963 as ordered by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.  The Marion Facility in Illinois took over the role that The Rock had held for nearly three decades.


Approximately 1575 convicts were sent to Alcatraz from 1934 to ’63.  During the course of the 29 years of existence eight prisoners were murdered by fellow inmates, five committed suicide, and 15 died of natural causes.   In all there are documented 14 escape attempts.  36 men were involved in these 14 separate efforts.  Twenty-three were caught, 7 were shot and killed, and six are listed as missing and presumed drowned.


Was there any good to say about the life on Alcatraz?  Yes, the Warden lived in a large house and used inmates with good conduct records for cleaning and cooking.  Some prisoners later indicated that having their own cell, no matter how small, was a great advantage over other prisons as privacy was a cherished benefit.  The food was considered the best in the federal system.


What few people ever thought about, or knew, was that there were up to 300 civilians living on this small island.  Families of the guards lived in three apartment buildings, one large duplex, and four large wooden houses for senior officers.  They had their own bowling alley, post office, dance hall, gymnasium, general store and soda fountain shop.  The prison boat made 12 scheduled trips to the mainland each day so shopping was easily done.


From the day of the last government ruled evacuation Alcatraz slumped into deterioration and was rusting away, home once again to the seagulls.


For nearly two years beginning in l969 a group of Native American activists (mostly college students from San Francisco) inhabited the island.  They were protesting the federal policies relating to the American Indians.  The Bureau of Indian Affairs had hoped to get as many Indians away from the reserves as possible so they could terminate the reservations and take away the land.


In 1972 Alcatraz became a national recreation area and in ‘86 received designation as a National Historic Landmark.  The original gardens have been restored by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and buried in the tangled overgrowth they have found many species plants right where they have been for over 100 years including numerous heirloom rose hybrids one of which had been considered extinct.


Alcatraz appears often in the media as it’s now an historical site, and appears in footage or as a theme for many movies and tv series.  However, in these instances the authors can use their ‘poetic license’ in creating a story not necessarily following exact elements.  Take for example The Bird Man of Alcatraz – Robert Stroud kept no birds while on the Rock.  He was sent there from the federal pen in Leavenworth Kansas where it was determined that he was abusing his research privileges while he was breeding and studying birds.  While at Alcatraz for 17 years he was mainly kept in segregation.


A maximum security penitentiary, and final stop for the nation’s most incorrigible prisoners, Alcatraz is today one of San Francisco’s most prominent landmarks and tourist attractions.  Cruises and tours take place several times a day with thousands of visitors every week.