An Irishman's Diary


BREAK the rules and you go to prison. Break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz. This old adage must have haunted every man incarcerated in a US prison during the relatively short lifetime of Alcatraz.

Once the stuff of nightmares, it is today one of San Francisco's top tourist attractions, drawing over a million visitors a year. Three well-known films - Escape from Alcatraz, The Birdman of Alcatrazand The Rock- and at least 16 books, by my count, serve to enhance the aura of "The Rock".

Alcatraz was opened as a federal prison in 1934 in response to the rise of organised crime, mainly because of Prohibition and the Great Depression. An inescapable jail was needed to house Al Capone and other notorious Mafia criminals and high-risk convicts. Nor did "Big Al" enjoy any special privileges, in contrast to his earlier incarceration in Atlanta where he had continued running his rackets.

He served only four-and-a-half years of his sentence on the island before developing symptoms of tertiarty syphilis; he was then transferred to the aptly named Terminal Island in Los Angeles.

Located in San Francisco Bay, just a mile-and-a-quarter offshore, the island is clearly visible from the mainland. Alcatraz had previously served as a lighthouse, a military fortification and a military prison. It was considered ideal for holding captives because of its isolation and the icy-cold water and treacherous currents that surrounded it. There is no truth in the myth that the waters are also shark-infested.

Prison life on The Rock was particularly tough, and intentionally so. Alcatraz had one guard for every three prisoners with head counts 10 times daily. In the early years the warden maintained policy of monastic silence, which many inmates considered unbearable punishment.

Talk was permitted only at meal times. Several inmates were reportedly driven insane by this rule. It was later relaxed, but little else was. After all, the inmates were hardened men whose crimes ranged from bank robbery to rape to murder. It is said that in the island's 29 years as a federal prison eight inmates were murdered and five committed suicide.

Food, it seems, was surprisingly good. After a series of riots because of the poor fare initially served, the warden vowed the Alcatraz cafeteria would be the best in the prison system.

Standing in one of the cells is a disturbing experience. A snooker table is 12 feet by 6 feet. Compare this with a cell measuring 9 feet by 5 feet and you get some sense of the cramped accommodation. The six solitary-confinement cells are truly frightening: two massive doors to each cell block out all natural light. There was no bed; only a mattress on the floor at night. On the visitors' audio-guide, one former inmate tells of how, when put in solitary confinement, he tore a button from his uniform, threw it on the floor, and searched for in on hands and knees in search of it in the pitch darkness. Having found his button, he repeated the exercise ad nauseam. It was his way of staying sane.

During Alcatraz's prison years, there were 14 escape attempts, involving 36 prisoners at least nine of whom died in the attempt. In May 1946, a failed escape attempt by six prisoners led to a pitched battle against the warders.

The penitentiary logged no successful escapes - which doesn't quite match with either folklore or the film Escape from Alcatraz, starring Clint Eastwood, which was based on a 1962 breakout by three men who crawled up an air vent, leaving papier-maché dummies in their cells to delay detection. The official report says they drowned in the bay, but fellow prisoners were of the opinion they successfully made the shore, got clean away and settled in South America.

On March 21st, 1963, Robert Kennedy, attorney-general in his brother JFK's administration, closed Alcatraz. The prison desperately needed repairs because of extensive salt-water and air corrosion and Government funds were tight. It was also an expensive place to run, costing nearly $10 per prisoner per day, compared with $3 in Atlanta. Furthermore, the bay was being badly polluted by sewage discharge from the prison.

Today the island is thriving. Flowers and birds abound (though all we could spot were over-fed and over-sized seagulls). Boatloads of people arrive and depart about every 30 minutes and booking in advance in advisable. There is no specified duration for your stay, but the island can be toured comfortably in under three hours, though there are some steep inclines along the way.

Alcatraz is now run by the National Park Services, which will charge you $24.50 for the boat trip, film and audio tour. Surely the best value for money today in San Francisco.