Friday, September 6, 2013

The Rock

What do you make of the above picture ? A decent looking band from the fifties? Yes it is a 1955 picture of a band who played lovely music and no one would believe that these musicians are the actual inmates of the Alcatraz prison.  Al Capone, the notorious gangster and “mob boss” actually played the banjo in this Alcatraz prison band, The Rock Islanders, which gave regular Sunday concerts for other inmates.  

A visit to the Alcatraz prison is something that really shakes you and makes you aware of the harsh realities of prison life.
An island off the San Francisco bay it was a Federal Penitentiary prison from 1934 to 1963.
Most of us has seen the place (or parts of it) in the Sean Connery movie The Rock or the 1979  Escape from Alcatraz in which Clint Eastwood acted.
As you leave Pier 39 (near Fisherman’s wharf)

 you are ferried across and get the first glimpse of Alcatraz.

As soon as you land you are given a small introduction to the place and how to go about visiting the island

You are given a head phone and the recorded message will tell you which path to take and how to move about.

As things are explained to you about the prison and its inmates, you re-live all the incidents that happened about half a century ago. The narration is done by officers as well as the inmates.

I just looked up to see how fortified the windows were.

While going through the cells and listening to the recorded commentary, I realised that even though this was a prison, the prisoners were taken care of well. The one cell one inmate policy was a way of avoiding attacks/conflicts from fellow inmates.

The open space (known as the yard) gave them a chance to look at the outside world.

The yard as it is today

The first warden James Johnston knew that poor food was often the cause of prison riots, so he ensured that good food was served to the inmates. I remember reading a board in the dinning hall “Take all that you wish - eat all that you take”

An inmate worker distributes trays near the steam table. The 1951 Christmas menu that you see above him is :

Stuffed Celery Green Olives
Mixed Sweet Pickles
Roast Tom Turkey
Giblet Gravy Cranbury Sauce
Candied Sweet Potatoes
Raisin Nut dressing
French Peas
Whipped Potatoes
Hot Apple Pie Ice cream
Bread Oleo   Coffee  / CR

The inmates kept themselves occupied in their free time by drawing and  painting

Or indulged in music

The portrait of officer L. Olin,  painted by an inmate.

There was a library, and like the board says “these men read more serious literature than the ordinary person”

Books were delivered to their cell as convicts were barred from the library.

There was an escape attempt (known as the blast out) in 1946, but it was not successful for two reasons, they could not find the key to the yard and too many hostages were taken. The stand off lasted for two days.


Crudely made bar spreaders were used to increase the gap between bars

The only successful escape that happened was in 1962 by three inmates who dug holes through the ventilator grids. They chiseled away the moisture damaged concrete from around the air vent using tools such as metal spoon soldered with silver (from a dime) and an electric drill improvised from a stolen vacuum cleaner motor.

The noise was disguised by accordions played during music hour, and the progress was concealed by false artificial grids.

Even though the main land was just 1.5 miles away, it was considered that no one could escape by swimming due to the current and the chilly cold waters. To overcome this they constructed an inflatable raft over many weeks from over 50 stolen raincoats.

They made fake heads and placed them on the bed to fool the officers. The head was made with cotton, soap, paint and human hair.

While it is not known whether the three escapees survived, sightings of them over the years provides circumstantial evidence that they may have.
The movie Escape from Alcatraz is based on this.

Key made from a spoon, possibly using machine tools in one of the prison workshops. Officers had to keep keys covered with metal sleeves, so that inmates could not see and copy the patterns.

Then there was the isolation cell – The treatment Unit, reserved for the unusually dangerous and violent inmates.
It is interesting to note that Arthur Barker (son of the original Ma Barker) served term at Alcatraz.

Some of the possessions of the inmates :

The office and the announcement room:

The knife rack in the kitchen had the shape drawn out so that a missing knife would immediately be noticed.

Probably the last on the menu board:

A 1950 picture of the officers and their families dressed in their finest for Christmas holiday party at the Island.

A 1954 Christmas Menu. It not only gives the details of the food but also the music that will be played on Christmas Eve. Mass at  8.30 am and motion picture Secret of the Incas at 3 pm.

I thought this cup was the right souvenir to be taken back from the island while wifey wanted a picture behind the bars (a happy prisoner)

The next time when I hear a whistle blowing, it will take me back to how things were at this island 50 years ago.


Joanne Noragon said...

A chilling tour. Thanks!

SweetMarie said...

Hubby and I found this so interesting! Great post!

Indrani said...

The olden days prisons are interesting, though I feel a little down moving through the various rooms. I am reminded of the one I visited in Venice.

magiceye said...

Thank you for the in-depth coverage!

TexWisGirl said...

i love the movie 'the rock' with sean connery.

deeps said...

now thats real rocking star

Kay said...

Very interesting post! The details of the escape are an especially good read. Alcatraz is one of the most popular tourist destinations in San Francisco. It makes me sound so terribly old but I remember as a child looking at it in San Francisco Bay and wondering about all the inmates there. They were considered the worst of the worst and terribly dangerous. (I'm a 4th generation native San Franciscan.)

A Cuban In London said...

What an interesting post. I remember Escape from Alcatraz (not when it came out, of course, I was too young). Didn't Dustin Hoffmann also acted in it? Many thanks for the pictures.

Greetings from London.

Haddock said...

Good to meet you Kay. Wow a native from San Francisco. Its a nice place. Stayed at Battery St.

Haddock said...

I have yet to see the movie, but I don't think Dustin Hoffman acted in it.

Stephanie said...

Wow, what a "chilling" tour! I was quite fascinated as I read through your post - thank you for sharing with us :)

Enjoy your day!

A Homemaker's Utopia said...

Wonderful and engaging read..Thanks for sharing..:-)

TexWisGirl said...

a scary place - even to tour now. and i loved that movie. :)

Unknown said...

Your post...educates and entertains. Great pictures and gr8 story in those pictures. Feel like going through again and again just to store the details in the head. Yeah have seen the movie but ur account of Alcratraz is overwhelming too. :)

Anita said...

A fascinating post to read and great pictures to see! If I ever have the opportunity to visit Alcatraz, you've convinced me to take it. I hope all is well with you and your family.