The very name, Alcatraz, stirs fear and a twinge of excitement at the thought of the stories of the men incarcerated there. From 1934 to 1963 Alcatraz Island served as the first maximum security federal prison in the United States. It was hoped that the location would make it escape-proof, and therefore, a good place to put the worst-of-the-worst.
Some of the criminals housed at Alcatraz included Chicago gangster Al Capone; Robert Stroud, known as the Birdman of Alcatraz; kidnapper George “Machine Gun” Kelly; bank robber Floyd Hamilton, an accomplice of Bonnie and Clyde; Arthur “Doc” Barker and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, members of the infamous Ma Barker Gang; Roy Gardner, last of the “Old West” train robbers; and “Bumpy” Johnson, the Godfather of Harlem.
The prison was closed in 1963 for financial reasons. Some staff lived on the island, but others had to be ferried out each day, and all food and water had to be brought in; 300,000 gallons of water came by barge every other day from San Francisco. On a per-prisoner basis, it was more cost-efficient to put the prisoners elsewhere.
Today those prisoners would most often be sent to the super max facility in Florence, Colorado.
Taken Over by the Park Service
In 1972 Congress created the Golden Gate National Recreation Area to be run by the National Park Service. Alcatraz Island, located 1.5 miles off shore of San Francisco,
was included. The island was opened to the public in the fall of 1973, and it has since become a very popular site for tourists.
“We expected interest in Alcatraz to fade after two to five years,” says Rich Weideman, associate director for partnership and civic engagement for the NPS. “After 35 years, we are still not seeing any drop in interest.”
Each year more than one million visitors come to Alcatraz, but almost that many are turned away because of the logistical difficulties of having to bring all people via boat. One out of every four visitors is from outside the U.S.
Weideman attributes the continuing interest in the prison to the mystique built by Hollywood. As early as 1937, two films were made about Alcatraz. One was called Alcatraz Island with John Litel and Ann Sheridan, followed by The Last Gangster starring Edward G. Robinson.
In the 1930s, security was so tight that no filming was allowed on the island. Filmmakers built a sound stage in Hollywood for all interior scenes. To obtain footage of the island, they used a boat to get as close as they could before being chased away.
To date there have been approximately 30 films about Alcatraz; two of the best known are Escape from Alcatraz (1979) with Clint Eastwood and The Rock (1996) with Sean Connery, Nicholas Cage, and Ed Harris. Myth-making will continue.
This January, J.J. Abrams, who created Lost (ABC) and Person of Interest (CBS) will debut his version of Alcatraz, with a plot centering on the disappearance of all the inmates.
“The Federal prison system soon realized that the myth created by the media was beneficial to them,” says Weideman. “Wardens at other prison systems simply had to mention to a troublesome inmate that he could be shipped off to Alcatraz, and chances were that his behavior would improve.”
Weideman makes a point that is emphasized in the traveling exhibit. “Treatment at Alcatraz was actually relatively good. It was a modern facility with good food and the prison warden, lawyer and businessman James A. Johnston, felt that the most exquisite form of torture was absolute routine. There were religious services on Sunday but otherwise, the prisoners had to fall in line every day for the same activities at the same time done in the same way.
“Former prisoners who return to visit all remember the monotony,” says Weideman.
The Exhibit — Alcatraz: Life on the Rock
The traveling exhibit, co-sponsored by the NPS and Alcatraz Cruises, displays the rich past of the island.
Alcatraz first served as a fortress to protect the coastline shortly after gold was discovered in California. During the Civil War the North stored firearms there to prevent them from falling into the hands of Southern sympathizers; it was also used to imprison Confederate sympathizers and those who refused military assignment.
The story of prison life includes an interactive exhibit where visitors can hear prisoners describe their experiences and learn about The Rock’s place in popular culture. “Life on the Inside” shows a cell as well as a tunnel similar to the one dug by prisoners attempting escape. (Fourteen escape attempts were made over the prison’s 29-year history. None are known to have been successful, though three escapees from a 1962 attempt were never found, and movies have been woven around the theory that the men made it to land.)
The exhibit also highlights the island’s occupation (1969-71) by Native Americans who used the takeover to rally for justice. A final section talks about preservation of the island’s lush flora and fauna.
When asked what most surprised him about his experiences, Weideman who has worked on projects connected with the island for approximately thirty years, mentions two: “I am surprised at the number of former inmates who return as tourists. Despite their time incarcerated there or at other prisons, there is a fascination for them to see Alcatraz.”
“I also love the gardens. In the midst of such bleakness, the gardens are so beautiful,” he notes. “When restoration of the gardens began in 2003, they even found a Scottish rose that was thought to be extinct.”
The gardens were first planted on Alcatraz by the U.S. Army in 1865. In the 1930s one warden fought for the prisoners to have the right to work in the gardens. In 2003 an effort to restore the gardens was undertaken by several conservancy groups, and today there are five gardens and more than 300 species of plants.
The exhibit is in place on Ellis Island through January 12; there is no additional admission fee other than the price of the ferry ticket; available from www.statuecruises.com.
Why the Exhibit Is Important
When asked about the reason behind the exhibit, Weideman answers: “The job of the National Park Service is to educate people by making these sites accessible to the public. Then visitors can make up their own mind about what a place like Alcatraz means to them.”
Weideman, who has spent much of his career involved with Alcatraz, says, “I hope seeing the island or this exhibit has helped deter many people from crime, but if we keep just one person out of prison, then all of the work that goes into these projects is worth it.”