Favorite thing: The fort built at Alcatraz was operated as a defense point during the civil war. A fortress was built on the island's highest point and protected by rows of canons. No shots were ever fired from here though. The fort was decommissioned in 1907. Several exhibits describe the defenses of Alcatraz and the lives of the soldiers who guarded it.
Favorite thing: The barracks once used to house military personnel became the apartments where correctional officers and their families lived. This portion of the island was fenced off for security for the families who lived there. But there were no attacks on the officers and their families while Alcatraz operated as a penitentiary.
Favorite thing: The home of the military commandant became the warden's house. It was a large 17 room home which was occupied by each of the 4 wardens and their families, including their children who also lived on the island. In 1970, a fire destroyed the warden's home, leaving behind only a shell of the building.
Alcatraz was designed to be the most restrictive of the federal prisons. It was a symbol of the government's commitment towards deterring crime, especially organized crime and mob activity.
As a military prison, Alcatraz was not a maximum security facility. When it was reopened as a federal prison, tool-resistant steel bars were installed, although they weren't always that resistant. Chain link and barbed wire fences surrounded the island and guard towers were installed and manned by personnel who would, and did, shoot those who attempted to escape.
The purpose of the prison was deterrence, and not restitution. It was supposed to send a message to prisoners that they had reached the end of the road. Former inmate Jim Quillen was quoted as saying, " The institution was there for the purpose of proving to unruly prisoners that they had reached the ultimate termination of their undisciplined way of life".
Its difficult to say whether this worked in any way. Most prisoners spent 8-10 years on Alcatraz and were returned to other facilities to serve out their often life sentences. The prison was closed after nearly 30 years because it was difficult to maintain and because the country changed its way of thinking and moved towards the goal of rehabilitation.
Despite the restrictions, iron clad security measures and high probability of death, inmates attempted to escape. It seems that there is no deterrent for those who feel they have nothing to lose.
"If you disobey the rules of society, they send you to prison. If you disobey the rules of prison, they send you to us."
Escape from Alcatraz
There are 4 cell blocks, only 2 of which were used for the general population of sorts. This is a photo of a typical cell in block B or C. A prisoner was kept within the confines of this cell practically 24 hours a day, allowed out only for meals and briefly for recreation in the yard. I can't remember the exact dimensions of the cell, but it certainly is not spacious.
The four cellblocks are constructed with three rows apiece. Alcatraz was never filled to capacity. Usually there were 260 prisoners while the prison could house 336, according to the information pamphlet provided by the NPS. But, at times, inmates were piled into the second and third stories of the cellblocks, giving Alcatraz even more of an appearance of housing inmates in cages. Looking at it from the ground, it kind of resembles a pet store.
But the tiers of cells had further degrees of separation, or, rather, segregation. African American inmates were housed in the top tiers, while white, Asian and Latino inmates occupied the first level.
The cellhouse tour includes a stop in the dining room. Only the portion of the room open to prisoners is open to the public on the tour. The kitchen area is blocked off and was blocked off from inmates for security reasons.
Since this large dining area was the place where inmates would be all together and in close proximity to items that could be used as weapons, security was of paramount concern here. There were only a few guards and a couple hundred prisoners. Hence the further concern.
On the ceiling, you'll see canisters which would dispense tear gas, to quell an uprising, if one should ever occur. We were told on the tour that none did. Inmates found other ways to attempt to escape.
Favorite thing: The hospital was located on the top floor of the cellblock. Visitors are not allowed to tour this area but can see a copy of the hospital rules and regulations posted near the dining hall. The rules seem rather strict, but medical care was supposed to be excellent. Al Capone spent most of his time at Alcatraz in the hospital wing., for whatever reason.
Favorite thing: A block, referred to by the inmates as Michigan Avenue, was the original block of cells used as a military stockade. A block was not used while Alcatraz operated as a federal penitentiary. Instead, most prisoners were confined to B and C blocks and the real bad ones were isolated in D Block.
Favorite thing: There are also demonstrations by park service employees which further explain life and conditions on Alcatraz. In the photo, a ranger demonstrates the process of transporting inmates. The presentation is punctuated by the loud and echoing sound of the metal bars being slammed shut.
D block cells were cold and dark. Light did not filter in and the prisoner was shut away in a cold and isolated existence. Prisoners were placed in D block cells when they became unruly. It was considered the place of last resort as, after all, they were sent to Alcatraz in the first place because they were considered "incorrigible".
During the tour, one former inmate describes spending time in a D block cell. It is a chilling account as he talks about taking a button, spinning it in his hand, and then dropping it and crawling around to search for it. He would repeat this process continuously while in isolation, because there was nothing else to do.
Favorite thing: This square confined area outside the cell blocks was known as the recreation area. This was the only exposure Alcatraz inmates had to the outside world. With the exception of meals and brief time spent in recreation, Alcatraz inmates were constantly confined to their tiny cells.
Favorite thing: D Block was the isolation unit, otherwise known as the Segregation and Treatment Unit. This was the place where prisoners who continued to be unruly and disruptive were sent. Its hard to take away privileges from those who have so few, but prisoners in D block were isolated from the main population and confined to their dark cells.
Favorite thing: The cell where Al Capone stayed while on Alcatraz is, for some reason, unknown. Because he was a notorious gangster, most people are eager to visit his cell. But, since there is no "Al Capone slept here" slogan graffitied on the wall and no such records were kept, it remains a mystery. According to the NPS information, Capone spent most of the 4 and a half years on Alcatraz in a hospital isolation cell. Whichever cell Capone occupied really is of no consequence as all the cells are the same: tiny, bare and confining.
Alcatraz is the Spanish word for Pelican.
This Island is discovered by the Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1755, and he named it after the pelican living here.
It was first used as a prison by the U.S. army during the Civil war.
It is probably the most famous prison in the United States, as it was impossible to escape, because of the strong and cold currents.
Its nickname is "The Rock".
Fondest memory: visiting the cell blocks.