The Horrors Of Alcatraz Prison

Alcatraz Island is known for is prison fortress built at the end of the 19th century and finally shut down in 1963 An impenetrable fort, from which nobody could escape alive

In fact, the only possible ways out of the prison were either death or infirmity And indeed, as many former inmates recalled, at times, suicide seemed their best hope Over the years, media made the prison famous for its inmates’ escape attempts But have you ever wondered what drove people to risk the guns of the guards, and defy the strong wind and the cold water? Was the danger really worth it? Alcatraz Island is just 2 kilometres from San Francisco At first, the fortress served as a military prison, due to its strategic position

The strong bay tides and the rumoured sharks that stalk the island made it impossible to swim safely away or to leave the island without being caught Among the first people incarcerated on the island were 19 Hopi Native American men They were imprisoned in November 1894 because, to make a long story short, imprisonment was the government's principal means of intimidating and punishing Native Americans who didn’t want to adopt the habits and customs imposed by the USA The time the Hopi prisoners spent on the island was harsh They couldn’t see their families and some of them didn’t reach the end of their sentence; they died before they could reunite with their loved ones

In 1995, the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office began a project to record the history of the Alcatraz prisoners Much of the information comes from articles of the San Francisco newspapers at the time They discovered what prison life was like for the Hopi, and seemingly for the rest of the prisoners too According to the papers, the Hopi prisoners generally spent their days sawing large logs into shorter lengths ""Their accommodations were the same as that of the white military prisoners, and their food was like that of any ordinary second-class hotel

"" As reported by the newspapers, the Hopi prisoners were treated rather well However, it should be noted that the articles are all from the white local institution's point of view, in support of the forced education program Historian John Martini discovered a description of Alcatraz from 1902, just seven years after the Hopi were detained It said, ""The old cell blocks were rotten and unsafe; the sanitary condition very dangerous to health They are dark and damp, and are fire traps of the most approved (sic) kind

” Over the years, the US government started using the fortress as maximum security prison for most of the ruthless criminals of the time, such as famous gangster Al Capone Capone was sent to jail in 1932 He was a subtle man, able to bribe and persuade prison officers to allow him privileges and help him manage his business from behind bars

Or rather, to judge from the appearance of his cell at Eastern State Penitentiary, from his hotel suite In 1934, the government moved him where his charming ways wouldn't work: Alcatraz As Capone himself stated in letters to his family, his years on Alcatraz were the hardest And even if he gained the privilege of learning to play the banjo, the poor weather and the constant aggression from other inmates exacerbated his syphilis In 1939, he was transferred to Terminal Island Prison in Southern California to serve out the remainder of his sentence

On the surface, life at Alcatraz wasn’t that different from other American prisons The day started at 6:30 am Each prisoner cleaned his cell, dressed and waited to be counted Then, all the inmates had breakfast together in the mess hall, and later each one moved to his workstation In their spare time, they could study in the library, if they wished

After dinner, everyone returned to their cells and the lights out was at 9:30 pm What made Alcatraz unique was its way of treating and punishing prisoners The first warden of Alcatraz, James Johnston, upheld strict discipline and a very rigid routine Under his command, the prisoners were not allowed to talk at all, even at meals

Speaking out loud was punished with isolation in D Block or in the dungeons, also called “The Hole” According to testimonies of some of the prisoners, like Jim Quillen, Robert Luke and Bill Baker, the treatment of prisoners in the isolation cells was inhumane Quillen recalled his time in isolation in his autobiography in 2015 “A day in the Hole was like an eternity The day would start at 6:30am when the lights were turned on and a nerve-jangling bell was rung

[] You would be instructed to roll up your bedding and set in the three-foot space separating the inner and outer doors The guard would open a metal peep slot and watch until you complied

Once you were back inside the inner door, it was relocked and the lights were turned off, leaving you in total darkness for the remainder of the day, except for meals [] It was also very cold, because of the limited clothing you were allowed

Inmates were given a pair of shorts, socks, and coveralls These were inadequate to keep one warm, because the steel walls and floor of the cell retained the cold[] Worse than being cold, though, was the feeling of total isolation from the world Being unable to see or hear is an awful experience for someone who has no physical impairment” The enforced silence was one of the hardest conditions to deal with in Alcatraz In the long term, it can seriously damage the human psyche Therefore, the prisoners eventually began speaking despite the rule, realizing that there weren't enough isolation cells to hold them all

By the 1950s the talking ban was abolished But the interminable hours in the isolation cells weren’t all The cold environment and water leaks all over the prison were almost unbearable at times But, probably, the cruellest source of torture for the inmates came from the guards Though federal prison regulations prohibited officers from carrying clubs, in Alcatraz, the guards made frequent use of banned blackjacks

And, even though there’s no record of formal executions in Alcatraz, many former prisoners believe guards shot to kill for any excuse Additionally, whenever the inmates protested against their treatment, guards feared a possible riot and brutally put them down by any means possible For example, according to the State Archives, in January 1936, about 60% of the convicts went on hunger strike The officers' immediate reaction was to lock the strikers in the dungeon Yet, some of them continued to strike for another week

At that point, they were taken to the hospital for force-feeding by putting a rubber tube down their throats and pouring a mixture of milk, sugar and eggs into it There were also several riots and protests In the 1950s, racist white prisoners rioted against the billeting of black prisoners in their cell blocks But the most violent incident happened in 1946 Six inmates overpowered a guard and tried to take over the entire prison

Several guards were locked up and later shot Officers from nearby San Quentin prison and military troops joined to retake Alcatraz by force Three of the riot’s leaders died, and the surviving three were later executed in San Quentin's gas chamber Another notorious inmate of the prison was Robert Stroud, also known as “The Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud spent 54 of his 73 years of life in prison, 42 of them in solitary confinement

He was only 19 when he received his first sentence of 12 years in federal prison, after pleading guilty to manslaughter in 1909 In 1912, after stabbing a fellow inmate and being generally troublesome, he was transferred to Kansas Leavenworth Prison, where he started taking university extension courses In 1916, he stabbed and killed a guard and was sentenced to death However, on April 15th 1920, President Woodrow Wilson commuted his sentence to life imprisonment in solitary confinement He began raising birds, collecting laboratory equipment, and studying avian breeding and disease

He was even able to smuggle out and publish some of his research However, in 1942 the guards discovered he was in contact with the outside and decided to relocate him to Alcatraz There he was allowed to continue his research but was denied the right to publish any more of his work But convicts weren't the only residents on the island The guards and their families lived there as well, leading a peculiar life

Children weren't allowed to have toy guns, because they could easily fall into prisoners’ hands, who could use them to bluff past a guard and escape Magazines had to be carefully destroyed, because prisoners weren't allowed to receive news from the outside world, much less read about sex or crime Razors, knives and silverware had to be thrown into the bay Despite the intense security measures, there were several escape attempts In 1936, Joseph Bowers was shot and killed while trying to climb the fence

In 1939, Henri Young tried to escape along with three other prisoners However, guards chased them to the beach and shot at them, killing one, injuring another, while Young and his third companion were defeated by the cold waters But the most famous incident is probably the 1962 escape by the Anglin brothers and Frank Morris The trio spent long months patiently planning They chipped away with spoons at the rotted concrete around the ventilation grates in their cells, then moved into an open maintenance space, reserved for pipes and conduits

In there, they constructed life vests and a raft out of raincoats they accumulated Their absence from their cells was disguised by paper mache heads left on each pillow Finally, they climbed to the roof, hopped a fence and escaped into San Francisco Bay They were never seen or heard from again, but legend has it that they successfully made their way to nearby Angel Island or were picked up by a waiting boat Alcatraz prison was shut down in 1963 but, 55 years later, there are still legends and mysteries surrounding it

Even if we now know a lot about the hidden horrors of the prison, there is still so much that remains unknown Additionally, Alcatraz may not function anymore, but there are still plenty of prisons around the world that still pursue harsh punishments and solitary confinement, instead of promoting rehabilitation programs It makes one wonder, when the buildings on Alcatraz were closed, did the spirit of Alcatraz really go away too?

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