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
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
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
bay it was a
Federal Penitentiary prison from 1934 to 1963. San Francisco
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
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
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.
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
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
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.