Friday, April 15, 2011
The BirdPeej of Alcatraz: Part 1
If you disobey the rules of society, they send you to prison; if you disobey the rules of the prison, they send you to Alcatraz.
The dock was the same one that prisoners would have first set foot on when they reached the island, and we were greeted by a lone watchtower that would have overlooked the unloading of inmates some 50 to 80 years ago. The prison itself was over the hill and out of sight, but there was plenty to see on the way. We started following one of the "experts" of the island, who explained buildings on the way and told us incredible stories of attempted breakouts. I found the story of John K. Giles especially clever (despite the fact it didn't succeed). Over several years, he had managed to pick out of the laundry a complete Sergeant's uniform - Alcatraz was contracted to wash the laundry for some nearby military bases, including Angel island right across the bay. One day he decided the time was right, and wearing his new uniform, he walked on to the military boat that was dropping off the laundry and set sail. However, this boat was not headed to San Francisco as was often the case - this one was going BACK to Angel Island. He was recaptured shortly after walking on to Angel Island, and sadly for him, his defense that he had "never left federal custody" (being on a federal boat, then another federal island) did not get him very far with the judge.
Finally, at the top of the hill were the walls that kept in some of the most dangerous criminals of years past, and we entered in a similar fashion that an inmate would have - first being paraded by the office where they would have had their possessions from "outside" kept for them, and issued their prison essentials.
The men that resided here directed us through the cellblocks, describing the day to day life and telling stories about things that weren't quite the norm in the prison. One former prisoner talked of spending much of his spare time doing crochet, and that he taught other prisoners to do so as well. The thought made me smile - a bunch of hardened, convicted felons having a crochet night! As we moved along, another prisoner spoke of New Years Eve, and when the wind was *just* right you could hear the music, the laughter, the voices enjoying the parties carry across the bay from San Francisco. I can't imagine what that must have felt like - what a stark contrast that must have struck for the prisoners. And that the "voices" from San Francisco saw no such contrast. They never knew that their parties affected those at Alcatraz.
After moving through the D-block ("isolation") where Al Capone once spent some time, we stopped in the library to rest our feet and process what we had seen so far. It was now that we REALLY realized how quiet everything was, and I appreciated the audio tour even more. Everyone was glued to their headphones and this kept the ambiance as it should have been. After a 5 minute break we continued, and learned about the Battle of Alcatraz - a breakout attempt that resulted in a deadly standoff between inmates and guards, and that lasted for several days before the guards finally gained control again. I won't attempt to tell the story here - my voice is no where near as strong as the voices that played on that recording, that lost friends or fought for their own lives or heard the bombing from their cells. The story they told was so powerful, and I found myself fighting back tears. I won't tell the story, but it was an incredible and violent time in the history of the prison. I would recommend taking the time to read about it, but nothing can really compare to hearing it firsthand.
At this point it was time to head outside and to think about escape - check back for Part 2...