Destination United States of America

Alcatraz: As the Crow Flies

Text and Potos Javier Pinzón

There are places in the world that fuel myths and legends, either for their beauty or their history. Sometimes gloomy, other times inspirational, the fact is that a mythical halo remains imprinted in the memories of those who visit these places. Right now, I am on a ferry, heading towards one of the most famous of these sites.

The ship is approaching what is locally known as “The Rock.” From the deck we can see the oldest operating lighthouse on the west coast of the United States and several buildings in ruin. We are welcomed by some striking old graffiti: “Indians welcome.” The importance of this message remains to be seen.

Now on the island we begin our journey through history. This goes back to 1775, when the Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala sailed the San Francisco Bay. During his expedition he made a map of the bay and gave a name to this island that would later become one of the most popular parks in the U.S., receiving more than a million visitors a year: the Isla de los Alcatraces, better known as Alcatraz.

Seventy-five years later, during California’s gold rush in 1850, President Millard Fillmore reserved the island for military use. One hundred canons were placed in its environs to protect the bay. It was during those years when the history of Alcatraz as a prison began. It first served as a military prison from 1850 to 1932, holding confederate sympathizers and citizens accused of treason during the Civil War (1861-1865). Several Native American “rebels” were prisoners there, including nineteen Hopis from Arizona who were imprisoned in 1895 due to disagreements with the federal government. In 1933 the military handed Alcatraz over to the Department of Justice and it became one of the most famous maximum-security, minimum-privilege prison in the world, not only because of the notoriety of its inmates but also for the cinematic escape attempts that took place there.

We walked down the slope that leads us inside the prison. Upon entering, we take an audio guide and begin our journey. In 1934, the Federal Agency turned it into a “prison of prisons,” since it was destined for inmates who had refused to follow the rules in other institutions, the most violent and dangerous prisoners, and those who were considered “escape artists.” Here the prisoners were only entitled to food, clothing, bedding, and medicine; everything else was a privilege they had to win through effort. These privileges included work, correspondence, family visits, library access, and recreational activities, such as painting and music.

Inside the atmosphere is grim. We slowly pass through the long corridors that allow us to see the cells (336 in total). They barely have enough room for a bed, a toilet, and a sink. I can’t imagine living in such a small space with such a monotonous daily routine. Just entering one of these cells, especially one of the solitary confinement cells, feels claustrophobic and suffocating. The idea was to teach a person how to follow the rules. But after so many prisons of this type were installed in so many different places in the world, humanity began to wonder if these limits were necessary even for the worst human beings, or, rather, if it was really the circumstances created by society that produced these types of people whom society then tried to “indoctrinate” with such extremes.

When I leave the cell I see my seven-year-old niece Alexas in the distance, listening to the audio guide intently and crying disquietingly from the chilling stories of the prisoners. I try to calm her down, while she tells me she can’t imagine how anyone ever lived inside such a small space. “They must have behaved very badly,” she says.

And yes, in fact, famous criminals passed through here, like the gangster George “Machine Gun” Kelly, famous in the age of prohibition, and Robert Stroud, better known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” who spent seventeen of his fifty-two years in prison. He is the author of two books and a movie was made about his life. There was also the mobster Alvin “Creepy Karpis” Karpowicz, declared “public enemy number 1” by the FBI in the 30s, who spent twenty-five years at Alcatraz, the longest time any inmate has spent there, and the most famous gangster of all time, Al “Scarface” Capone, who spent four and a half years in this prison under the rule of silence, which meant he could not speak unless an officer spoke first.

I visit the library, the only place where the privileged few prisoners who had access could escape from their reality and peer into another, perhaps more pleasant one by reading a book and maybe, for a fleeting moment, feeling free. The audio guide confirms my thinking. Most of the prisoners who spent time in Alcatraz read an average of seventy-five to one hundred books per year. Another peculiarity of this place are the windows, since they are placed in such a way that light enters in but you can’t see out, except for a few small windows which gave a view of the city of San Francisco. This was probably more of a torture than a relief, or maybe a reminder that life existed beyond these walls. The same thing happened when the inmates went out to the recreational area outside, where they could barely glimpse the mountains and the sea beyond the wall.

But perhaps the most striking thing about this mysterious place is the stories of escape attempts. When I pass the guard post, I listen to one of the stories, the most violent one of all. It occurred on May 2, 1946, when six prisoners tried to escape, leading to the so-called “Battle of Alcatraz.” Another famous escape attempt happened on June 12, 1962, when Frank Morris and the brothers John and Clarence Anglin came up with the an intricate escape plan. For months, they used spoons and forks they had stolen from the mess hall to dig a hole in the masonry that surrounded the vents in their cells. After piercing a wall that was 6.5 inches thick, they would escape through the ventilation system. To fool the guards, they left paper mache dolls in their beds, to which they had glued real hair that they had collected from the prison’s barbershop. They had also stolen several raincoats to use as rafts in their escape.

The people in charge of Alcatraz assured the public that the inmates had not reached dry land and had drowned in the frigid waters of the bay, but the bodies of Morris and the Anglin brothers were never found. This story became legend and inspired the famous film Escape from Alcatraz, starring Clint Eastwood. The case remains open and investigators still receive clues about the possible whereabouts of the fugitives, who still have an arrest warrant out on them. It seems that the fate of these three bold prisoners will remain a part of the dark legend of the most famous prison in the world. The truth is that each year hundreds of athletes participate in the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, proving that it is possible to swim from Alcatraz and survive.

Once again outside the building, we are led to an auditorium where we watch a film presenting the island’s history. Only at the end do I realize the reason for the graffiti at the entrance. In 1963, when Alcatraz was closed due to the high cost of maintenance, the building was left abandoned until November 20, 1969, when a group of Native Americans from different communities occupied it, with the hope of creating a Native American Cultural Center and an educational complex on the island. American Indians of all communities used this act of civil disobedience to illustrate the problems they faced. The public supported them, and thousands of people came to the island during the eighteen months of occupation. Although the group of native leaders could not handle the large number of people who came and were accused of damaging the infrastructure, the truth was that they achieved their objective: President Richard Nixon reversed a policy that had been designed to end federal recognition of the tribes and established a new policy of self-determination, no doubt a result of the publicity and awareness created by the occupiers. The occupation ended on June 11, 1971.

I continue taking photos and listening to stories, knowing that very soon the last ferry to San Francisco will leave. I shudder to think what it would be like if I had to spend a night in one of those cells that for so many years accumulated so much anger and sadness. So I take my last shot of what is now part of Golden Gate National Park and leave behind these walls, where legends of impossible escapes are intertwined with those of the courage of a people who managed to acquire their own self-determination.

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