To get to the island in the bay where Alcatraz is located you take a boat from the dock- side at Fisherman's Warf. It is just a short ride to the island and I couldn't help but think of the men who had taken the trip in hand cuffs knowing that they may never be coming back. The stories that lay behind the name Alcatraz fill countless pages in America's most infamous past. Names like Al Capone, Robert Stroud, The Birdman, the list is almost endless.
When the boat approached the island, the first thing to greet us was the sign that greeted the men who came to Alcatraz in chains as they entered a world within a world except that the one that waited for them would give a new meaning to the word hell.
It sits out there in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Initially it was set up as a potential military prison and in the late 1850s the first military prisoners began to arrive on the island. 80 years later around 1850 the island was transferred to the US Department of Justice for use by The Federal Department of Prisons. It became known as "The Rock" and said to be escape proof. It became the place that all the country's rotten eggs were put.
As I said, it was considered to be escape proof, while it seemed an easy swim to the city, the water was always very cold and filled with sharks. So, even if you did escape from the prison and manage to make it into the water, you would never make it to freedom. At least that is what everybody thought.
The corner cell you see in the picture with the two cells was occupied by one of the prison's most famous prisoners, Robert Stroud. I am sure you have seen the movie "The Birdman of Alcatraz" that was so well acted by Burt Lancaster one of my all time favorite actors. It told a fascinating story but in actual fact "The Birdman" as Robert Stroud was called never did have any birds in Alcatraz. His famous bird activities actually happened while he was in Levenworth where he murdered a guard. He was sentenced to death but a plea from his mother to President Woodrow Wilson resulted in a commuted sentence to life imprisonment. He was transferred to Alcatraz in 1942 when I was just two years old. He spent 17 years, 6 of those in segregation in "D" block and 11 years in the prison hospital.
With his cell on the top tier, he could likely look across the Bay at the skyline of San Francisco as indeed could other residents of that top tier in "D" block. As I stood in there I tried to imagine what it must have been like to see such a wonderful city every day just beyond your reach with all the things that free people enjoy. It must have driven the minds of those prisoners to the brink of insanity.
In another picture we see the main cell- block from the far end of the exercise yard where prisoners would spend at the best a few hours a day. They would either wander around the yard or they would sit on one of the concrete steps that you see at the base of the building. As they sat on those steps they would hear the whistles of passing ships setting out for adventures around the world and the voices of crewmen chatting on the decks. They would hear the sounds of the every day life happening just a few miles away in the city. They would catch the occasional scent of food from the countless restaurants on fisherman's Warf and the smells of traffic floating down from the famed Golden Gate Bridge on the cold breezes coming in from the sea beyond.
All the senses of freedom, invading the hopeless world in which they would have had to fight every second to survive in. The thought fascinates me. I don't think that I could survive and retain my sanity in that situation. If you could just step back in time that empty yard you see would be full of men, each one filled with hate and rage at anyone and everything. You might even see someone walking across the concrete with a shive under his sleeve closing in on another inmate with the intention to kill. It boggles the mind.
In another picture we see the top two tiers of infamous "D" block and the segregation cells that line the wall at floor level. Let me tell you something about those segregation cells. The guides asked if anyone would like to be locked in to experience what seg would be like. I raised my hand like a fool and very quickly regretted my false bravado. I entered the cell and the door was slammed shut. I instantly panicked. There was no sound and there was no light. I mean you could not see your finger right in front of your eye. I quickly began to shoot off the flash on my camera to give me a blast of light for a few seconds. All it allowed me to see was the empty room with four walls and the door. It was like being buried alive. I was terrified.
I started to think crazy thoughts like what if war broke out and everybody was killed, nobody would ever come for me. It's crazy, I know but when your mind is in a state of panic a lot of things come to it from some way out place. The three minutes that I had agreed to be locked in for seemed like a lifetime and I completely blew the batteries on my flash. Thank God I had it. Without it I would have been a gibbering idiot when they finally came for me. The only thing I could think of after I got out of the cell was, how in the name of God could any man survive days, weeks and months in segregation and not be insane when they got out.
There was even a case where a man had been kept in segregation in another part of the prison for years. Check out a movie called "Murder In The First."
Yes there have been lots of movies made about Alcatraz Prison or "The Rock." There were fourteen escape attempts over the years. In 1962, on the 11th of June, the escape attempt that prompted the movie "Escape From Alcatraz" starring clint Eastwood took place. Three men, Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin were never heard from again. If they made it or not was never determined but on March 21st, 1963 Alcatraz was closed.
It may no longer be a prison and it may be crawling with tourists but the air around it and in it is thick with the ghosts of the men who experienced its evil for real. Now, more than a million people every year tour its empty halls and cells. I can't talk for everyone but in my case I felt its infamous past in my soul.
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