Opened in August, 1934, the ‘United States Penitentiary, Alcatraz’ was born of high hopes and new ideas for confining and breaking America’s most serious offenders. It ended on this day in 1963 after less than thirty years amid acrimony, embarrassment, hypocrisy and a sense of failure among America’s penologists. It had been billed as ‘America’s Devil’s Island and, like its namesake, Alcatraz became a national embarrassment.
Now California’s most popular tourist attraction bringing in over one million visitors every year, it was one of the great white elephants in American penal history. It cost too much to run, brought too much notoriety, caused too much suffering and, most of all, was a flawed idea from the beginning.
Dozens left the island in strait-jackets, others left in coffins. Those who left alivee were only facing years or decades of hard time in less miserable places like Atlanta and Leavenworth. Very few were ever really reformed or rehabilitated, but Alcatraz had never been intended for that. For the Federal Bureau of Prisons the island was a dumping-ground for those already deemed beyond reformation, men like Rufus ‘Whitey’ Franklin who were mostly destined to spend the rest of their lives serving centuries behind bars. They were there to be broken, not bettered.
The main cellhouse was once the largest free-standing concrete structure in the world. By 1963 it was a crumbling edifice, built on the sand of political grand-standing and show-piece policy. It was a failure, achieving far more as a tourist spot and movie set than it ever did as a prison. It had to close and in 1963 it did. The once-mighty Rock had crumbled.
It had been opened during the legendary Crime Wave of the late-1920’s and earlt-1930’s when criminal legends like John Dillinger roamed, robbed and killed seemingly at will. Racketeers Al Capone had built vast fortunes and even bigger empires through Prohibition and, between them, the robbers and racketeers had made America a truly dangerous place to live.
Problem prisoners and numerous jail-breaks, some led by outlaws like Bonnie & Clyde, had made a mockery of law and order even in the prisons themselves. Spurred on by public protest and increasing lawlessness the authorities seemed powerless to stop, America’s penal czars needed a publicity-grabbing solution and Alcatraz was it.
By 1934 the former United States Disciplinary Barracks had become the latest United States Penitentiary, custom-designed to break even the the roughest attitudes and stymie the smartest of the escape-minded. From their arrival even the worst of the worst, Capone and his ilk, were to become just numbered items of Government property.
Somebodies would be broken into nobodies under an iron regime of maximum-security with minimal privileges, beginning with their island mugshots having not their names, just their numbers. Even prison labour was a privilege that had be earned by good behaviour, mail was censored, no phone calls were allowed and only two visits per month. No contact was allowed with anyone failing an FBi background check, friends and family included.
The dreaded solitary cells in D Block nick-named the ‘Dark Hole’ were just a bare concrete floor with no light, toilet or bed in which prisoners could be thrown for up to nineteen days at a time. It was all meant to break the spirit of even the hardiest crook. Where other prisons sought to turn convicts into good citizens, Alcatraz sought only to crush them into being good convicts. By 1963 that great experiment had failed. America’s criminals had not been broken by the mighty Rock. The Rock had been broken by its own reputation, chnging attitudes and the weight of its own flawed concept.
When its closure was announced by then-Attorney-General Robert Kennedy there were fewer than thirty convicts left on the island. It had never held more than two-thirds of its full capacity of around 300, nor had they all been the worst of the worst. That idea was meant to sell the new super-prison, trumpeted as the escape-proof ‘Bastille by the Bay.’ Just as it hadn’t held all of America’s worst felons, it hadn’t been escape-proof either.
Inmates had vanished off the island, though none has ever been confirmed as successfully escaping. There had also been the notorious case of Henri Young whose defence lawyer put the island’s regime on trial and the legendary Battle of Alcatraz, a failed escape-turned-siege in May, 1946. Aside from column-acres of yet more negative publicity it resulted in the deaths of staff and inmates alike, ending with the executions of Sam Shockley and Miran Thompson at the nearby San Quentin Prison in December of 1948.
While last few inmates shuffled off the island aboard its resident boat, headed for other prisons and with little hope of a brighter future, television cameras whired and photographers snapped away in only the fourth invitation they had received since the prison opened. A strict policy of preventing media and public scrutiny had been deemed necessary to break down even the biggest gangster ego. It had also helped seal the island’s fate.
With hardly any official news to print and with endless horror stories, some true and others not, coming from former prisoners and disgruntled former employees, the official policy had deprived the prison of positive publicity as much as the convicts it held. Reports of beatings and brutality from guards, a prison administration that turned a blind eye and took a vow of silence whenever allegations were made and books and films regularly suggesting the showpiece porison was really a house of horrors, it was no suprise that it quickly gained and never lost a dark mystique and fearsome reputation. That was much a result of official policy as the allegations themselves, be they true or untrue.
The last inmate to be sent to Alcatraz was Frank Weatherman. An armed robber, Weatherman had been inmate number 1579, sent from a prison in Alaska after an attempted escape. He also had some pungent words for those who had thought the ‘Bastille by the Bay’ was the ultimate answer to America’s criminal woes. Alcatraz, he said as he boarded the boat, had never done anyone any good.
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