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What Alcatraz Was Really Like?

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When it comes to prisons, the United States has a knack for establishing quite a few and filling them to capacity. But does putting criminals behind bars do much to ‘rehab’ them or put their actions into perspective? Hardly anyone who goes through the prison system shares their experience, but it’s a different story with Alcatraz specifically.

What is Alcatraz?

Alcatraz Island, as it’s officially recognized, is a small island in the San Francisco Bay, situated a little over a mile from the coast. During the time the island was in operation, government officials established the West Coast’s oldest working lighthouse, a military fortification, and prison (1838), and a federal prison that lasted a little under thirty years.

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Who was Put Here?

Alcatraz Island was not your run of the mill prison. And by modern standards, the way prisoners were treated here might now be illegal. That being said, the people who were put here committed some of the most violent crimes in the history of the country.

Even criminals like the well-known Al Capone, best known for producing alcohol during Prohibition, had their lives truly put into perspective when they were registered to the isolated prison island.

Capone may have been a notorious Chicago gangster, but that reputation was completely irrelevant to other prisoners, as former convict Bryan Conway said in a 1938 article detailing his experience at Alcatraz:

“All my friends had warned me about Capone. He is as unpopular at Alcatraz as he was at Atlanta – not because of the crimes with which he was charged but because he is a weakling and can’t take it.”

What Was It Actually Like?

Also known as “The Rock,” just laying one’s eyes on the island was enough to fill a prisoner with a sense of overwhelming dread.

With the first warden, James Johnston, there were many things prisoners were not allowed. During the first few years that island was in operation, there was a single time of day where prisoners were allowed to speak. If you disobeyed, you might have ended up in the dungeon.

Writing letters was even more restrictive than simply not being allowed to talk. Prisoners were allowed to write a letter the length of two standard pages, once a week, and only a blood relative was the allowed recipient. In addition to not being able to write your spouse a letter, prisoners were given heavily edited rewrites of letters addressed to them.

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To make unruly prisoners compliant, they were forced to spend time with something called “The Eye of God.” A column of light was produced as the sun’s rays pierced a hole in the roof of a cell, lasting for only a few minutes a day. There were rumors that this method of discipline often drove prisoners insane.

The First Window Visits

Alcatraz Island was one of the first prisons to employ the placement of glass between prisoners and their visitors. Because of the level of technology, the prison built ‘shouting tubes,’ which is now visitors spoke to prisoners before the invention of the handsets we have now.

Additional Locations on the Island

In addition to the more than 200 prisoners housed on the island, many guards and their families lived in a small town on the island. Most guards today would not look forward to living near their place of work.

Closure of Island Prison

Methods of discipline for prisoners evolved past what is inhumane, but thanks to the cost of maintenance and terrible reputation it earned, its doors closed officially on March 21, 1963. Alcatraz Island is now open to the public as a museum that offers guided tours.

Bryan Conway shared in his article his thoughts on the fear that Alcatraz Island inspired in people:

“Why do men dread Alcatraz? Because the discipline is as severe as it can possibly be. Literally, you leave all hope behind, for clemency is all but unknown; only a few short-timers get out. Men go slowly insane under the exquisite torture of restricted and undeviating routine. And not so slowly at that, because out of 317 prisoners, 14 went violently insane during my last year on the Rock, and any number of others were what we call ‘stir crazy.’”

Have you been to Alcatraz Island? What did you think when you visited? What do you think of its history?

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