On June 11, 1962, four men attempt to crawl out of dug-out ventilation grills, scamper thirty feet up plumbing to the rooftop, hop the walls, scale a fifteen foot fence, float in a homemade raft fashioned from raincoats to Angel Island, and then swim across Raccoon Straits. Three men made it out. None were ever found.
This prison break quickly became both legend and lore for Alcatraz. It was notable not because the prisoners crafted paper mache dummy heads to hide their disappearance or because of the cunning plan it took to even make it out of the walls. It is notorious because Alcatraz was supposed to be unescapable.
In architecture, we are always looking to break down walls, invite the outdoors in, and create transition through boundaries. This is definitely not the case with prisons.
You know it as the setting for action films where a not-quite protagonist is trying to break out. It’s almost always raining. It’s almost always cold. The name alone conjures highly detailed scenes to millions of minds that have never once stepped foot inside the place. But, before it was the inescapable prison. It was just a rocky island chosen because of its location.
It was the perfect spot for a fortress. Three hundred and sixty degree views and no fear of attack. The military went all out, creating the western symbol of military strength in 1853. The fort housed four massive 36,000 pound guns and cannons too. A shot from Alcatraz could sink ships three miles away. Don’t get too excited though, because they only ever fired one round from a cannon (and it was a miss).
What was ideal in 1853, held little value by 1860s as modern weaponry made the fortress unnecessary. Instead, in true re-purposing fashion, it became a great location for prisoners. By 1861, it was open for business and by the time of the Spanish American war (1898) over 450 prisoners would call Alcatraz home. After the 1906 earthquake, civilian prisoners in San Francisco moved to the island for safe confinement. With a surge in the prisoner population on the island, the time had come for a proper prison to be built.
And what a spot for a prison. Just below the island, fierce currents rip through below 60 degree water. Each wave pulls towards the Pacific Ocean, instead of San Francisco. And just for kicks, Great Whites can sometimes be found patrolling the waters. You need significant courage to dare the swim from Alcatraz, but then again you probably need significant courage to break out of prison too.
The prison that most of us conjure in our mind as Alcatraz is not the original. In 1912, four cell blocks of 600 cells were built complete with a kitchen, dining area, recreation yard, power plant, and offices. When built it stood as the largest reinforced concrete structure. (Remember this one? It beat it in size) The design was innovative for its time. All interior cells were separated from contact with the outer walls. Iron cells remained independent of the thick concrete and barred windows of the prison proper.
The whole prison experience was different than what I would imagine for the world’s most impenetrable prison. The cells were only used for sleeping or lock-downs. Inmates with lesser crimes were allowed to travel rather freely around the complex. Alcatraz was minimum security. Some prisoners even were tasked with caring for staff’s children. In the 1920s, the prisoners were granted the right to build a baseball field and have regular games. Sounds less Alcatrazy? Doesn’t it?
Times changed. The Great Depression brought with it a rise in organized crime. There was a need in the system for a place for the hard to deal with prisoners. Alcatraz was remodeled in 1934 to be the most high-tech prison of the time. In his update, Robert Burge designed a place he believed to be escape-proof and forbidding. While electricity was routed to each cell, all utility tunnels were completely cemented to prevent people from getting in and hiding in them. Gun galleries were created to transverse the cell block and allow guards to patrol while being protected. These galleries stand completely elevated and out of reach by the prisoners. Tear gas canisters were installed in the ceiling of the dining hall and put on remote activation. Out of the 600 cells, none adjoined a perimeter wall. Even if a prisoner could tunnel through their cell they would still need to find a way to escape.
Johnston, the warden, believed in the reform of inmates through work. Instead of using chain gangs, he gave each inmate a job where they could be respected and rewarded. Over the years, his prisoners made significant improvements to California highways and were rewarded with reduced sentences. But don’t let his belief in humane reform make you think he was soft. He did not stray away from punishment by hanging, and every single right a prisoner was given (to visitations and even reading materials) had to be earned.
Prisoners no longer roamed freely, but were marched from place to place. The Rock began to take those with history of unmanageable behavior and escape attempts, as well as convicts with high public status or notoriety.
Tool resistant steel replaced the iron of the previous cells. It cost more than 200,000 dollars to re-outfit the prison with the bars, and the one task alone cost more than building the entire prison in 1912. A mechanical locking system allowed guards to open cell doors and groups of doors remotely, instead of carrying around a huge ring of keys. The prison was also equipped with metal detectors, which had just busted onto the technological scene.
Imagine. Each cell stood as 5 by 9 feet. Each held a bed, a sink, toilet and small desk. Cold concrete surrounds you softened only by a few steel bars. Perhaps fortunately, (depending on your stance on company) you were without a roommate. Though awful, this fate was better than getting put in ‘the Hole’, reserved for problematic prisoners. There, an iron door would block all light, a low wattage single light bulb would provide the only light. The harshest punishment would be 19 days.
Although horrible, life at Alcatraz was not much different than any other prison in America. Each morning you cleaned your cell, marched to breakfast in the mess hall before having a work detail, and after dinner, had free time in your claustrophobic cell until lights out at 9:30. Occasional wardens made this routine worse. The first warden, James Johnston, wouldn’t allow any talking except for brief periods even at meals. Most prisoners believed this was the harshest punishment of all.
The guards spent the majority of their time in the gun gallery, a multilevel walkway enclosed with bars and mesh. From there they had a straight shot to any point on the cell block. Alcatraz was different for them. It was their home. Many of their families lived on island. Children would take a boat off to attend school, wives to go to the grocer. The island, outside the prison walls had a movie theater and recreational opportunities. I think this is the hardest part to reconcile when walking around.
Eventually, the cost of running Alcatraz was higher than it’s worth as a prison. Importing everything needed to run a 300 person prison was expensive. The concrete building had begun to deteriorate from the sea conditions, and escape attempts in the 30s and 60s mean that maybe escape-proof was not as accurate as they thought.
However, the end of the prison was not the end of the island. In November 1969, Richard Oakes, form the Mohawk Indians, attempted to claim the island for the Native Americans. A group of his followers would reside on the island for 19 months, even forming their own community. Despite multiple orders to vacate by the federal government, the tribe eventually got the government to listen to their demands. Chief Oakes became the unofficial mayor of Alcatraz and elected a council providing security, sanitation, day care, school and housing. As time continued to pass and things did not change radically, his followers slowly left, but hippies and homeless cam on. Eventually, Richard Oakes’ 13 year old stepdaughter fell down a stairwell to her death and Oakes left the island causing all leadership to collapse. The American Indians had found that the ferrying of supplies was too expensive (just like the prison). The Government eventually cut power and removed a water barge that carried fresh water. Three days later, an accidental fire started and spread throughout several buildings including the historic lighthouse of 1854. After that, everyone dispersed.
It’s hard to reconcile the fact that America’s home for the most hardened and the toughest of America’s prisoners, has now become one of the biggest tourist destinations for San Francisco. An unsettled silence greets you and seems natural. As you stand in that hall looking at the cells and the catwalk, thinking of Al Capone sitting behind a set of bars and the other criminals that would have called this place home, it seems odd that it is now surprisingly empty. The buildings are crumbling, and with it are the memories of this place. Wildflowers seem in conflict with the crimes and history that occurred, but still nature continues to reclaim her island. Nature has penetrated the same walls men spent their lives fantasizing breaking out of.