Alcatraz and the meaning of prison

April 22, 2012

Break the laws of society and you go to prison, break the prison-rules and you go to Alcatraz. Famous saying about Alcatraz

You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Anything else that you get is a privilegeAlcatraz Inmate Regulations, Rule # 5

There will always be the need for specialized facilities for the desperadoes, the irredeemable, and the ruthless, but Alcatraz and all that it had come to mean now belong, we may hope, to history. James V. Bennett, Director of the Bureau of Prisons

On March 21, 1963, Alcatraz officially closed. All the prisoners were transferred off the island. Only that’s not what happened…not at all… Opening from the JJ Abrams TV series Alcatraz


On March 21, 1963, the final 27 inmates departed Alcatraz. For 29 years the worst of the worst had been housed in the notorious prison on an island in the San Francisco Bay. This was the end of an era. The local press had been invited to record the event for posterity. It was a poignant moment as the 27 prisoners spent their final hours on the rock. Even on the last day the Warden was determined to adhere to the rigid regulations; the final meal, breakfast, would last only twenty minutes. The inmates were then led back to their cells, where they were met by an officer and then handcuffed and shackled, ready for final departure. Amid the flash of cameras the prisoners went to board the prison launch. Frank C. Weatherman, inmate AZ-1576, was the last prisoner onto the launch. On being questioned about his feelings about the closure, he provided the prison’s unofficial epitaph: “Alcatraz was never good for nobody.”

I shall be coming back to Alcatraz later but I want to look at the history of imprisonment first. We are so used to the idea of prison that we do not realize that until relatively recently putting people in prison was not a punishment in itself, but rather a way of confining criminals until corporal or capital punishment could be meted out. Many credit the Quakers with the idea of reforming criminals through time spent under lock and key. In 1790 the Pennsylvania Quakers built a small prison with sixteen individual and fully isolated cells. The criminals were left there with only a copy of the Bible. The reformers believed that this would help them to achieve penance. From this practice we get the word penitentiary meaning prison.

The notions that locking criminals up was a form of punishment and that you could reform them were revolutionary. And it was in Britain in the 19th century that prisons as we understand them emerged, inspired to a large extent by the ideas of that great British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism.. Bentham actually designed a kind of institutional building called a Panopticon, which allowed the observer to see all inmates of an institution without them being able to tell whether or not they were being watched. Bentham conceived the circular building as being equally applicable to hospitals, schools, poorhouses and lunatic asylums, but he devoted most of his efforts to developing a design for a Panopticon prison. He persuaded the parliament to allow him to build a prison based on this model. The scheme never got off the ground and the project was halted in 1801. Bentham may have been unsuccessful, but in the 1920s Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado did have the Presidio Modelo built following Benthem’s guidelines. Fidel and Raul Castro were imprisoned there the unsuccessful rebel attacks on the Moncada Barracks in 1953. The Castro boys obviously found it a positive experience – after the revolution they extended their hospitality to dissidents, counter-revolutionaries, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other assorted enemies of the state, who were able to study Bentham’s designs at close quarters.

A few years after the completion of the Presidio Modelo the world’s most famous prison came into being. On October 12 1933, the United States Justice Department announced plans to take over Alcatraz as a federal prison. To illustrate the fact that NIMBYISM is not a modern phenomenon we can observe the reaction of San Francisco’s citizens; they were none too pleased with the idea of sharing their scenic bay with nation’s most hardened criminals. Alcatraz was officially named as a federal penitentiary on January 1, 1934. As a federal “super-prison,” it had two key functions:

  1. to incarcerate the nation’s most notorious criminals in a harsh, maximum security / minimum privilege institution.
  2. to act as a deterrent to the new breed of criminal that had emerged during prohibition.

The federal government wanted to show that were getting tough on crime. An essential component of the punishment for famous inmates would be not allowing them to see their names in print.Alcatrazwould serve to completely isolate the inmates from the public, and every aspect of their daily lives would be controlled.

The prison could hold 336 men, but the prison never reached full capacity and the occupancy was usually about 75%. 1,545 men were incarcerated in Alcatraz in its 29 years of existence – from Frank Lucas Bolt, AZ-1, to  Frank Weatherman, the last man to board the prison launch. The rock’s three most famous guests were Al Capone, ‘Machine Gun‘ Kelly and Robert “The Birdman” Stroud. The convicts lived a highly repetitive, regimented, almost monastic life. Everything was done in accordance with a strict daily schedule, which never varied through the years. The schedule was established by the prison’s first warden, James A. Johnston. From the 06.30AM morning bell to lights out at 09.30PM everything was highly regimented. Alcatraz was the prison system’s prison – if a man did not behave at another institution, he could be sent to Alcatraz. The reason for all of this regimentation was to teach the inmates to follow rules and regulations. Once prison officials felt a man no longer posed a threat and could follow the rules, he could then be transferred back to another Federal prison to finish his sentence and be released. The punishments have become an essential part of Alcatraz lore. The notorious Strip Cell was a dark steel cell, where inmates would be stripped naked and given water and bread once daily, an occasional meal and a mattress at night. The only toilet was a hole in the cell floor and there was no sink. The convicts were completely isolated from the rest of the prison population and spent their time in total darkness.

Alcatraz was undoubtedly a strict prison but it was not the brutal hellhole depicted by many a Hollywood blockbuster. Our image of the prison is mediated by its representation in popular culture. Who can forget Burt Lancaster’s performance as Robert Franklin Stroud in as “The Birdman of Alcatraz?  It is a great film but it does contain a number of inaccuracies. Robert Stroud really should have been known as the “Birdman of Leavenworth,” since it was at the Kansas prison that he kept his birds and did his research. He was not actually allowed any birds during his time at Alcatraz. But the real problem is in the characterisation of Stroud. Philip Bergen, a prison guard was asked which character depiction he found most accurate. His reply was succinct:

“Well… the birds were very well written don’t you think?”

The reality was that Stroud was complex, multi-layered character, who was very manipulative and clearly had a vicious streak.  He first went to prison for manslaughter after killing a barman. Then whilst in prison he brutally stabbed and killed a guard. He was sentenced to execution by hanging, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by President Woodrow Wilson. In total Stroud would spend fifty years of his life behind bars, at the time the longest federal prison sentence ever served. For all the celebrities calling for his release and the tender images from the film of Stroud curing frail canaries, he never once expressed any remorse for his killings. What’s more he was said to have boasted to other inmates about the crimes he would commit if he were ever released.

For me the best film about the prison is Don Siegel’s 1979 thriller Escape from Alcatraz, which chronicles the story of Frank Morris and two brothers John and Clarence Anglin, who escaped from Alcatraz in 1962.  Morris and the Anglin brothers meticulously planned their escape from this island for almost a year. They stole prison-issue raincoats to make a boat and life jackets. They moulded soap and paper into life-sized heads with hair, lips and eyebrows, which they placed on their pillows to fool the guards into thinking they were sleeping in their cells. Using stolen tools and kitchen spoons they were able to dig a hole in the back of their cells big enough for them to crawl through.

There were 14 known escape attempts, with 36 would-be escapees, but this was the most famous This June will mark the fiftieth anniversary of their daring breakout. What we don’t know is if they survived in the chilly, turbulent waters of the Bay in their makeshift raft. It is not an impossible feat. There are no man-eating sharks in the bay and a well-trained and conditioned swimmer with knowledge of the speed and direction of the currents can swim to the mainland. It has been done. The problem is that the prisoners had no control over their diet or physical training. However, no proof of death has ever been found. We will probably never know the truth as to what happened nearly half a century ago.

Most recently we have had the 2012 television series Alcatraz by JJ Abrams, the man behind Lost. The premise of the series is that when the prison closed in 1963, the prisoners were not transferred from the island, but mysteriously disappeared. They have now reappeared without any aging and have begun committing crimes. A task force has been set up to track them down. The mystery is what has happened on the island. There are strange experiments involving the prisoners’ blood and a Machiavellian warden and the keys to a secret gold stash hidden beneath the prison.

Now the island is a tourist park and its influence is confined to movies and TV.Alcatrazmay have been shut down, but a lot of Americans are in prison.  The incarceration rate in the United States is 743 per 100,000 of national population, the highest in the world. When Alcatraz was inaugurated, the corresponding figure was 100 per 100,000. Despite having around 5% of the world’s population, 25% of the world’s inmates are in the United States. This is a very sobering figure. This massive increase has led to a significant decrease in the crime rate. Keeping people in prison is expensive, but allowing criminals to roam the streets to commit more crimes is also costly for society. However, the demented War on Drugs has led to more and more people are being convicted for nonviolent offenses. Prison is the right place for anyone committing crimes like rape, assault, armed robbery etc. but it is the wrong punishment for crimes without victims, or where other punishments are more effective. Buyers of drugs are generally engaging in voluntary transactions with sellers. Yet nearly 25% of all US inmates are there on drug-related charges. Moreover, since drug prices are kept artificially high by the drug policy, many others go to prison for crimes they committed to finance their consumption. Luckily in Europe we don’t have the crime rates they have in the States. But I think that prison should instil a sense of dread in potential criminals. Punishment should not be a dirty word. It is great if incarceration serves to reform criminals. But if that is not possible, then we need to protect society from these miscreants.

Prison trivia

April 22, 2012

Here is some prison trivia I found on the internet:

Striped prison uniforms, first introduced in the early nineteenth century, made it easier to spot escapees in a crowd. But they were also intended as a psychological punishment. In the Middle Ages, striped clothes were the pattern of choice for prostitutes, clowns and other social outcasts.

In January 2002, the website Convicts Reunited was started. Here is the blurb from their website: Our Company Convicts Reunited is, to the best of our knowledge, the largest database of convicts and ex-convicts run by ex-convicts, which means we can serve you better by getting more people together. Okay, so the newspapers gave us away. We’re not ex-convicts – although we have been chased out of more than one apple orchard as kids. But what we do have here is a great opportunity to get together and provide something to this online community.

Although criminals have been found guilty for some horrendous crimes against humanity and put behind bars, there still lies a chance for ’em to show their goodness for our planet at the world’s first ecological prison. Although the idea of a eco-friendly prisons isn’t widespread, a small island tucked away in Norway has managed to bring the fresh green change at the Bastoey prison. The Bastoey Island low security prison uses solar panels for energy, produces most of its own food, recycles everything it can and tries to reduce its carbon footprint. The solar panels have cut the prison’s electricity needs by up to 70 percent. Hoping to install a sense of responsibility in their inmates, the authorities aim to instill a strong sense of responsibility towards mankind and our environment as well. If inmates at this prison do porridge, it is organic porridge. For it is not only recreational drugs that are banned, pesticides are too. Bastoey has also tapped grants from environmental bodies to help it produce high-quality food. Though most of the food is used in the kitchen there, surplus is sold to other prisons too. Touted as the island of hope, this prison has also gained international media attention for its living conditions, resembling a summer camp with activities like tennis, horse riding, and even swimming in the summer, when the North Sea waters warm up. Isn’t it inviting? Maybe this eco friendly luxuriously prison lifestyle is going to tempt many to commit a crime to gain an entry to the ‘island of hope’.

The Interior Ministry in Peru has banned chili sauce and hot spices from prison food. An edict was handed down by the Interior Minister because these items were claimed to “have aphrodisiac qualities” and would “arouse sexual desires.”

Russia’s prisons have a reputation for being the most overcrowded on earth, especially Kresty Prison inSt. Petersburg. The official capacity is set at 3,000, but the actual population is always at least 10,000. Each prisoner is also said to only be allowed 4 square meters of space each and 15 minutes a week (a week!) to shower. In summer 2006 Vladimir Putin announced that the prison would be relocated to a new facility in the Kolpinsky District on the outskirts of Saint Petersburg. After the relocation is complete the Kresty building will be sold at auction. It is anticipated that the prison building will be transferred into a hotel-entertainment complex.

Brixton prison, which was originally called the Surrey House of Correction, was originally built in 1820. Brixton become one of the first prisons to introduce treadwheels in 1821. It is the oldest active prison in London.

In January, prodded in part by outrage over a series of articles in the New York Review of Books, the Justice Department finally released an estimate of the prevalence of sexual abuse in penitentiaries. The reliance on filed complaints appeared to understate the problem. For 2008, for example, the government had previously tallied 935 confirmed instances of sexual abuse. After asking around, and performing some calculations, the Justice Department came up with a new number: 216,000. That’s 216,000 victims, not instances. These victims are often assaulted multiple times over the course of the year. The Justice Department now seems to be saying that prison rape accounted for the majority of all rapes committed in the US in 2008, likely making the United  States the first country in the history of the world to count more rapes for men than for women.

The United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX) is a supermax prison in Florence,Colorado,USA. This is the ultimate prison, literally. Since it opened in 1994, ADX is nothing but slow and inhumane torture. Inmates are only allowed out of their cells for 9 hours a week and barely interact with anyone. There’s hardly any sunlight and you have to do everything in your cell. Prisoners are served meals in their cells. The room is mostly poured concrete which ensures the furniture can’t be moved or even humped comfortably. The toilet will shut off if someone tries to plug it and showers work on a timer to cut back on potential flooding. ADX is a prison intended for the worst felons the country has to offer.

Charles Dickens’s father John Dickens was imprisoned in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison in Southwark London in 1824. Shortly afterwards, his wife and the youngest children joined him there. Charles, then 12 years old, was boarded with Elizabeth Roylance, a family friend, in Camden Town. Dickens later used the prison as a setting in Little Dorrit).

Sark Prison is located on the Island of Sark in Guernsey, was built in 1856 and is apparently the smallest in the world. it can house 2 prisoners at a push and is still used for overnight stays – if you continue to play up after that you’ll get shipped off to a proper grown-up jail with corridors and staff.

The land underneath 154 year old San Quentin state prison is estimated to be worth $80 to $100 million, instantly making it the most valuable prison in the world. it occupies 275 acres of oceanfront land overlooking the bay, some say the most valuable real estate in the whole country.

And finally here are some Guinness records:

Longest-serving prisoner on death row: Now 75, Iwao Hakamada (Japan) has been on death row in Japan for 42 years, convicted of murdering a family in Shizuoka in 1968.

Most life sentences: Terry Lynn Nichols (USA) is serving 161 consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole for his part in the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma,USA, in which 168 people, including 19 children, were killed.

Longest-serving political prisoner: On May 1, 2009, Nael Barghouthi, a Palestinian sentenced to life in jail, became the longest-serving political prisoner. He began his sentence on April 4, 1978 and has now served more than 32 years in an Israeli jail. Incarcerated at the age of 21, Barghouthi has now been in jail for a decade longer than he was previously free

Longest jail term: On December 23, 1994, American Charles Scott Robinson was sentenced in Oklahoma City,USA, to 30,000 years, the jury having recommended 5,000 years for each of the six counts against him.