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.

As we sailed toward the island, I excitedly took out my camera and braced myself against the edge of the boat to keep from getting thrown around by the rough waters.  The wind was strong and despite the cloudless day it was not especially warm.  I was excited to explore such a historic landmark, a place with so much history and legend.  I commented that there was once a time when people wouldn't have been so excited to be on a boat bound for Alcatraz.  We thought about that quietly and prepared to disembark on the island.

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.

We began our climb up the steep hills to the cellhouse, passing dilapidated offices and guard quarters on the way.  I'm not sure what they were thinking when they originally thought they would level the whole island, because there is a LOT of elevation change heading up to the prison!  Obviously they didn't succeed in leveling the island, and the cliffs around the island ironically provided both a natural defense against escapes, and an easy hiding place for inmates to stash the tools they would need to escape.  Even the "paths" down to the water did not look especially friendly or safe - many of them were blocked off to the crowds of today.

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.

We were also issued something in this room - the earphones for our audio tour.  Now, I tend to not be the biggest fan of audio tours.  I prefer to read and discover and learn at my own pace, so I took it and figured I could listen to see how terrible it was, and just turn it off and walk around on my own.  However, I turned it on and was not greeted by some guy that studied Alcatraz in school - the tour was narrated by former guards and inmates of The Rock.  People that had witnessed momentous events in the prison's history, that were able to convey emotion about the events because they HAVE real emotions about the things that had been a part of.  There were easily 1000 other people in the cellblock, and we all quietly hung on every word that they had to share with us.

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...

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