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The allure of Alcatraz

Sudha Rao, Dec 23, 2012, DHNS : 18:29 IST

Confined

Birds eye view: The island of Alcatraz.
Carved by natural and human forces, Alcatraz Island, in the heart of San Francisco Bay, is a national parkland with bay views beyond compare.

But this is not what attracted us to this island. Strangely, what drew us there was the fact that it served as a federal prison which had several stories linked to it. Despite the grim history behind it, we noticed that it draws huge crowds. We had to make a reservation four weeks in advance for the tour tickets.

Alcatraz had been used as a fort, a lighthouse and a prison. A mysterious aura surrounds it, perhaps because of the use to which society has put it. We have heard stories of the prison and some of the infamous men who were housed there — Al, ‘Scarface’ Capone and Robert Stroud, the ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’, to name a few.

The island was a prison almost from the very beginning. During the Civil War era, the Spanish-American War (1898) and World War 1 criminals were imprisoned here. In 1934, it was transferred from the War Department to the Department of Justice, as a maximum-security federal penitentiary, until 1963, when increasing maintenance and operating costs led US Attorney-General Robert F Kennedy to close Alcatraz.

Moving around

When we arrived at Pier 33 in San Francisco on a bright afternoon, a long line of visitors was waiting to begin the tour. It happened to be the final day of the American Sailing Regatta, being conducted in San Francisco Bay.

A cheery woman took the customary photo of every group, with the Alcatraz as the backdrop. The ferry ride offered stunning views of the bay and the San Francisco skyline. The Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge looked spectacular, with the sun shimmering on the blue water. We were lucky not to encounter the usual foggy weather that San Francisco is known for. Sailing along, click, click, click went our cameras.

We landed at the dock on the island, where a guide briefed us about the island. There was an electric shuttle for the weak-kneed, which takes you up to the building that used to house all the cells. Much of the island is steep and hilly, and a majority of us preferred to climb. We then took the audio tour that gave us a peek into the daily lives of the inmates and the correctional officers.

It guided us through the rows of cells, visitation area, dining area, warden’s quarters and administrative blocks, all the while providing interesting anecdotes. It even recreated a prison escape attempt, complete with the scuffle between prisoners and the officers barking orders. We walked through the library, which was supposedly stacked with books of all kinds, for the inmates. It seemed a real paradox that the most popular books among the prisoners were on religion and philosophy.

Most of the officers’ families lived in San Francisco, and it was reported that when there were parties on the mainland, the breeze would carry the revelry and music all the way to the prisoners’ quarters on the island. How they must have longed for freedom when they heard all those partying sounds.

We reached a particular corner of the building which had sunlight streaming in, giving the area a cheerful look. We nodded in perfect understanding when we were told that the cells in that area were the most sought after.

There were four blocks of cells: A, B, and C. Block D, or the Isolation Block, was reserved for the most hardened criminals. We entered one of those cells, just to feel what it must have been like to be locked in forever behind those forbidding bars. Each cell had a toilet, sink, bed and table where a few personal possessions could be kept.

Interesting facts

We came across some interesting facts like how Alcatraz had no ‘death row’ or any facility for execution. There were no female prisoners, ever. In the 29 years that Alcatraz served as a prison, 36 prisoners had tried to escape. All but five were recaptured. However, there were five suicides and eight murders.

The cellhouse tour was all we had time for. What struck us was that unlike the Cellular Jail in the Andamans, which is a symbol of India’s struggle for freedom, Alcatraz is not associated with any one notable event in history. Nevertheless, the walls, empty cells, the hallways, each have their own story to tell.

The frigid waters and strong currents caused many a desperate man to reconsider escape from Alcatraz throughout its 104-year prison history. But there have been some daring attempts.

Of the 14 attempted escapes, the best-known occurred on June 11, 1962. Frank Morris and brothers Clarence and John Anglin escaped from their cells through enlarged air vents. Dummy heads were left in their beds. (We saw these, but don’t know if these were the ones they had left).

As the audio tour came to an end in one of the large terraces, where we could rest before embarking on the return ferry ride, one thing was clear — Alcatraz attracts so many people because of the human stories associated with it, and the infinite capacity they have for firing our imagination.

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