Alcatraz and the meaning of prison

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.

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