Just a Number?…

Posted: June 3, 2011 in History Stuff
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My lasting impression of Alcatraz is the cold.  It seeps into every pore.  Even on a sunny day… The biting wind whips around every corner.  You feel the chill deep in your bones.  Almost like the ghosts of prisoners past reminding you that you are now on the ROCK!  No heat, no warmth, no loving embrace to keep you warm.  The birds are now its most famous residents with 1 million visitors each year to the prison.  There were on average 260 prisoners between 1934 and 1963.  Alcatraz was a prison for unruly prisoners…

You entered the prison as naked as the day you were born.  You were strip searched, showered and given prison clothing to wear with your identification number.  On the audio file, a prisoner said he felt dead inside, no longer human, just a number on the rock…”  Freedom was no longer yours to own.  Another prisoner said “Never a day went by that you didn’t know what you were missing…”  On Alcatraz, a prisoner had four human rights: food, clothing, shelter & medical care.  Each prisoner was given a copy of the prison rules.  Everyone had to work.  Some prisoners played by the rules to earn their privileges e.g. lesser sentence.  They focused on baseball and spent 3 hours in the biting cold playing ball.  Others escaped mentally through books, music and art.  Some continued to fight and cause trouble… They thought of only one thing.  Escape.

There were 14 escape attempts on Alcatraz.  The last attempt was the only known successful swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco bay.  The mile and half swim is treacherous due to freezing cold water and rough tides.  One prisoner was found exhausted clinging to the rocks near the Golden Gate Bridge.  He had used inflated gloves in his clothes to help keep him afloat.  His partner in crime turned back.  Another clever attempt involved a prisoner making a bar spreader which was a bolt nut and pipe used to spread the bars apart.  He then starved himself to fit between the bars.  He made it into the gun gallery and captured some guards.  His escape plan was foiled by a guard who hid the exit key.  This sparked a riot and some prisoners and guards were killed.  No-one escaped.

Some have and have never been found.  Two prisoners dug their way out of the air vents with large spoons and left dummy heads in their beds.  They used large raincoats as homemade floating devices.  Thought to have drowned, others believe they are in South America.  No-one knows for sure….

According to Jon Ronson, author of the Psychopath test, “25% of the prison population is a Psychopath”.   A Psychopath is “someone who has a complete absence of empathy”.  Alcatraz was made up of prisoners who had committed crimes ranging from kidnapping and bank robbery to murder.  Some of these spent the majority of their time on D-block.  An inmate spent 24 hours per day on lockdown in the hole and only let out for one hour per week.  Some infamous inmates on D-block included Al Capone and “The Birdman” Robert Stroud.  Al Capone was in prison for tax evasion, he spent some of his time in the hospital isolation cell due to contracting syphilis and slowly lost his mind.  He said to an inmate “It looks like Alcatraz has got me licked”.  The Birdman was in prison for murder and continued to commit murder whilst there yet kept and raised canaries in Leavenworth prison.  As the 1960’s approached, questions were asked about Punishment vs. Rehabilitation.  The costs of running the prison were also taken into account.  U.S Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered the closure of Alcatraz in 1963.  Prisoners were transferred to other prisons.  A prisoner observed on his release “Everyone was moving so fast… I was envious.  They all seemed to have a destination.  They all knew where they were going.  I didn’t.  I was scared to death”…


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