Alcatraz, that most famous of American correctional facilities, has been a national park longer than it was a Federal prison. It housed Federal inmates from 1933 to 1963, a mere 30 years. The island’s history goes back much further. Its name comes from the Spanish for Island of the Pelicans, though the birds no longer nest there. It was reserved as a military installation in 1850 and served as a military prison from the Civil War until 1946.
“The Rock” was for the worst of the worst in the Federal Prison system. The waters of San Francisco Bay separated escapees from freedom. There were two well-known escape attempts; in 1946, prisoners overpowered guards and took them as hostages, in what would be later the Battle of Alcatraz. This was immortalized in 1947’s Brute Force, starring Burt Lancaster, a film very violent and gritty for its day. It’s also highly fictionalized, but worth hunting down. The more famous escape was fictionalized in the Clint Eastwood vehicle, Escape from Alcatraz, and it was recently proved, using tide tables and by tracking the currents, that the three men who took rafts into the bay might have survived. There were reported sightings of the escapees, particularly at the funeral of one prisoner’s mother, that give credence to the idea. And with the San Francisco skyline so tantalizingly close across the water, inmates were bound to have dreams of freedom on their minds.
What is the lure of Alcatraz? For one, it has the snazziest name of any Federal prison, perhaps only rivaled by Sing Sing (nee Ossining). It’s had its share of famous residents, from Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz, to Al Capone, and even Whitey Bulger spent a stretch on the island. The iconic, desolate edifice of the island is unlike any other Federal pen, being so close to the hills of San Francisco and the freedom of the Golden Gate, yet as the saying goes, so far. Where else can you take a stroll beneath a magnificent bridge, with cars flying above and surfers coasting below, and spy a monolithic prison that housed well over a thousand of the prisoners no other penitentiary wanted? No wonder it’s stuck in the national mind long after its cells were empty.
When I visited Alcatraz, it was as a tourist. Anyone can buy a ticket at Pier 33 and hop a boat to the island, which currently hosts art exhibits by Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and frequent political prisoner. The prison has been a political symbol since 1969, when members of the American Indian Movement took over the island. Their messages and political art remain. “Peace and Freedom.” “Home of the Free.” “Indian Land.” My favorite is how one enterprising artist changed the stripes of the American flag to read “FREE” if you look just right.
Weiwei’s installations are hands-on and easily cross the language barrier. Steel stools sit in open cells, with speeches and music by political prisoners from across the world, from Martin Luther King to Pussy Riot. In the dining hall, you can choose to mail a pre-addressed postcard to political prisoners in dozens of countries. I chose a few at random – a prisoner in Vietnam, one in Indonesia, and Chelsea Manning, imprisoned for WikiLeaks. Just to keep things fair. Barrett Brown, the journalist recently sentenced to 5 years in prison for releasing data during an exposé on corruption in government contractors, wasn’t on the list yet.
Even when packed with tourists, Alcatraz remains a quiet and peaceful place. Perhaps being surrounded by tons of cold stone has a silencing effect. Or the Native Americans who named it “Evil Island” before the Spanish came were onto something, that the cragged rocks and unending surf chill the human spirit. I was fortunate enough to be visiting during a book signing by a former inmate who’d been housed at the prison. I picked up a copy of his self-published memoir, Alcatraz #1259. Now a senior citizen, William G. Baker had a firm grip and a ready smile, as if quite satisfied to be back at the Rock, as long as he was permitted to leave anytime he wished. There’s a gift shop now, where you can buy a metal cup to rattle against the bars. No Alcatraz toothbrushes to make into a homemade shank, however.
Tchotchkes aside, a visit to Alcatraz gives your imagination a hint of what incarceration is like. The open shower area, devoid of privacy; the cells so small that even a New York City realtor couldn’t call them “cozy” or “charming,” and the solitary cells, like sensory deprivation tanks in the bowels of the prison. The exercise yard has a high brick wall that robs you even of a glimpse of the sun on the waves or the bustle of the city. Only the cry of birds and the hiss of the relentless surf remind you of what awaits beyond the walls, if you ever walk free again. I was grateful to hop on the ferry, buy a bag of chips and a beer, and put the Rock behind me. Those walls soaked up 30 years of hatred, anger, and despair, and you only feel it once the boat leaves dock, and Fortress Alcatraz lurks over your shoulder like the humped back of a leviathan on your tail.
All Photos ©2015 Thomas Pluck
Thomas Pluck writes unflinching fiction with heart. He is the author of Blade of Dishonor, an action thriller spanning Shogun-era Japan to WWII, and the editor of Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT, an anthology of crime fiction for charity. You can find him on Twitter as @thomaspluck.