Where's Alcatraz Should they rebuild it

Alcatraz Cellhouse cell block


First steps in the cellhouse (149kb).

First, a short story about the core building on Alcatraz. When the War Department decided in 1907 to give up Alcatraz as a fort, a plan was quickly developed to build a prison for 600 prisoners there. The prison wing designed by Major Reuben B. Turner was completed just five years later. In its time it was the largest concrete building with a steel frame in the world. Turner was to become the first in command of the military prison. The equipment was modern in keeping with the times, with central steam heating, light windows in the roof and electrical ceiling lighting. All building materials were delivered by barges, one difficulty being the fact that there is no fresh water source on Alcatraz, but that it is needed to make the concrete. The construction was mainly carried out by prisoners, who then became the first inmates. After the conversion to a maximum security prison in 1934, the previously flat steel bars were reinforced and firing positions were added at each end of the cell block. The watchtowers were fenced in and secured with barbed wire. Metal detectors were also installed for the first time. There was one guard for every three inmates, and there were 13 official prison counts every day. The final renovation took place from 1939 to 1940, during which the D-block with the insulating cells was removed and electric doors were installed.

A small hallway leads to the first large interior: the shower room. This is a large hall that is very similar to an underground car park. Many concrete pillars support the roof, and there are freely floating pipes below the ceiling. The room is structured according to its functionality by curb-like floor boundaries. There are no shower stalls or spatial separations. There is a large shower room for everyone. This is installed across the cell wing, so that only windows on its narrow sides provide natural light. Otherwise, simple lightbulbs on the ceiling only ensure dim lighting. At the rear, behind bars, is the area where showerers dropped off their clothes for laundry and where new inmates were searched and given their new prison uniform. They were given a set of rules to read, which they had to keep in their cell at all times. It contained 53 rules, Rule 5 of which actually sums up everything: "You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Anything else that you get is a privilege." (You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical care. Everything else is a privilege).

The showers were a dangerous place because there were always fights between prisoners. The inmates were showered with hot water three times a week - they shouldn't be able to get used to the cold water found in the bay. A roll of toilet paper and a bar of soap were then given for use in the cell. In his last days on Alcatraz, the mentally troubled Al Capone often stayed in the shower room with his banjo. He was allowed to play his instrument here instead of hanging out with the others in the exercise yard, where he feared for his life. Incidentally, the shower room is not the one that was shown in the movie "The Rock", where there is a balustrade for the guards.


The Audio Tour Walkman (258kb).

On the side opposite the laundry there is a large water tank in a corner. Right next to it you get to the audio tour issuing point. Several stands with the small playback devices and headphones are waiting for the visitors. A friendly employee asks for the mother tongue and then hands over a suitable device. The languages ​​English, Spanish, German, French, Italian, Japanese, Dutch and Mandarin are available. If you don't want to take the audio tour, you can get a $ 8 refund on the day ticket (2007). Over 30 soundtracks are stored on it, which can be played by entering the track number. The course of the audio tour route is signposted, and the associated track numbers are shown on a sign at the points of interest. I can only recommend everyone to take advantage of this free service. The total of 45-minute explanations are excellent, some of them commented on by former inmates and employees (in the English version, of course) and acoustically so atmospheric that an occasional cold chill runs down your spine. My device had given up after track 7 and could only be brought back to life with track 30, but we couldn't complete the entire tour in the remaining time anyway. This audio tour offers another advantage: Almost all visitors use it, which is why it is quite quiet in the premises. Despite the flow of visitors, you can still let the impressions work on you relatively undisturbed, without being distracted by constant babbling; at least in the not so heavily frequented indoor areas. Finally, you can stop the audio player at any time. In addition, this more or less guided tour ensures that visitors move relatively smoothly and evenly through the prison and that there are no major traffic jams anywhere. So you have the opportunity to inspect the relevant localities at almost every point without waiting.

An elevator takes you one floor higher, directly to the Dining Room (also known as the Mess Hall). Like the showers, this room is also provided with numerous support pillars. But because of its width and the associated larger window front, it looks much friendlier. The impression may also come from the fact that we were almost alone in the shower room while a lot of tourists had gathered here. After all, there are seating options in the form of old wooden benches, and it is really the most pleasant space for a short rest. One side of the room is completely barred, separating the kitchen. The knife box on display is noteworthy here. This does not contain any knives, but their outlines are drawn in black. So you always had a check on whether one of the metal tools was missing. The food on Alcatraz is said to have been one of the best in the entire US prison system - even if the prisoners themselves had to prepare the food under the supervision of experienced, trained overseers, which is why there were occasional scuffles. Three meals were served every day like in a cafeteria. A typical lunch meal consisted of soup, a green salad, side dishes such as bread, potatoes, pasta or rice, meat and a dessert (cake, cookies or ice cream). Everyone could take as much as he wanted. However, he then had to eat the plate completely empty in the given time. On the opposite side is the entrance to the actual cell wing, which we now enter.

You have to imagine this huge room from the floor plan as follows: Two squares are offset one above the other and form a square cut surface in the middle. There are a total of four cell blocks in the room, separated by three corridors. From the entrance you look straight down the main corridor, "Broadway Ave". The name comes from the fact that this corridor leads directly to the large wall clock above this entrance. This also explains why the crossing was called "Times Square" at this point. The two long blocks in the middle are block B on the left of the entrance and block C on the right. Farther to the right is the shorter and walled block D, in which the isolation cells are located and behind it the library. On the far left side there is block A in the rear area, which was hardly used as a prison after the military period because it was not renovated when it was converted into a correctional facility and no longer complied with the more modern security measures. This can be seen most clearly from the flat cell grid struts. The cells served rather as storage space, and the hairdresser also did his work here in the corner of the corridor. One cell was used as an interrogation room. The corridor between Block A and Block B is called "Michigan Ave" while the third corridor is called "Seedy" as a derivative of "C-D Street" or "Park Ave". The outer corridor at Block A is called "Sunrise Alley", its counterpart at Block D is called "Sunset Strip".

The cell blocks are three-story, the upper floors are completely provided with external corridors, the metal railings in connection with the ubiquitous cell doors leave a rather oppressive first impression. Above the entrance and on the opposite side of the cell block there is a balustrade, the "gun gallery", where the guards patrolled and kept an eye on the corridors. The name comes from the fact that, unlike the rest of the cell wing, the guards here were armed. The guards who were on duty in the corridors were not armed to be on the safe side.


Broadway (159kb).


A cut-off (183kb).

Light shines in from above through large windows in the flat roof above the corridors, so that it is not as dark as one might have imagined. It shouldn't be dark anywhere, because otherwise how should the guards keep an eye on everything. Ironically, a utility corridor had been constructed within the cell blocks between the back walls of the cells attached to the outside, which was completely in the dark and could only be looked through through barred doors at the end of the respective block, which was gratefully accepted with some escape attempts. But back to Broadway. In the middle of the two long blocks, these were subsequently provided with a breakthrough, the "cut-off". The cut-off in the C-block shows traces of the three-day siege of Alcatraz in 1946 on its walls and on the ceiling. Inmates Coy, Cretzer and Hubbard were killed in the utility corridor of the C-Block at the end of the three day battle for Alcatraz because they preferred to shoot their way free instead of giving up. The hole in the ceiling was broken by Marines to throw explosives from the roof into the prison. The traces of the splinters can still be seen in the ground, and bullet holes can also be seen in a steel door. In this "Battle of Alcatraz" two guards were killed and 13 injured. Two prisoners, Thompson and Shockley, were executed in San Quentin for complicity in the death of the two guards, and Carnes received life sentences.


Broadway again towards Times Square (221kb).

Accommodation in the cells was carried out separately according to ethnic groups. African-Americans were housed on the upper floor of the B and C blocks, while Asians and Latinos were housed with the whites in the rest of the area. After being converted into a correctional facility in 1934, Alcatraz was able to accommodate 336 prisoners - that is how many cells there were in Blocks B and C. However, there were seldom more than 260 imprisoned at the same time (between 222 and 302) - all men. 1,545 men were housed over the 29 years. All but 71 were moved from other prisons to Alcatraz after causing problems of all kinds there. Only two prisoners were released directly from Alcatraz, the rest of them were sent back to their prisons of origin. Between 1934 and 1963, a total of 36 men attempted to escape from Alcatraz in 14 independent attempts to escape. Two inmates tried to escape twice. Only five of them were never seen again. Only one prisoner, John Paul Scott, has been shown to survive the grueling swim across the bay. Completely exhausted and hypothermic, he was caught on the rocks below the Golden Gate Bridge, unable to move and near death. Five escape attempts were made from the industrial building, four from the cell block, two from garbage details, two from the dock and one from the waste incineration plant.


Typical cell (86kb).

When walking through Broadway, you keep looking into the cells. These do not offer the occupants any privacy. The prisoner in the cell opposite can see everything exactly - and vice versa. The rooms are narrow and cold. 1.52 meters wide, 2.74 meters deep and 2.13 meters high, with cemented walls, a steel bed frame with a thin mattress, a sink with a tap for cold water, a toilet bowl without separate seats and lids and a small one table and chair that can be folded down from the wall. Each prisoner spent between 16 and 23 hours a day in this cage, depending on the privileges granted to them. Not a nice place to spend years of life; the average was eight. Well, the stay shouldn't be a reward either. Nevertheless, compared to other federal prisons, one may also see advantages to Alcatraz. Each prisoner had his own cell, had his own light, running water and the whole wing was constantly heated to 21 degrees.


The cell door control is hidden in the wall box (196kb).

At the end of the corridor you can see large wall boxes on each side at the level of the cell doors. They contain a mechanism with which the cell doors can be opened and closed. All, individual or specific cell door groups can be unlocked using a sophisticated lever system. Unfortunately all boxes were closed. Now let's take a look at Michigan Avenue on the left, between Blocks B and A. Here cells B-138, B-150 and B-152 on the first floor are interesting. The inmates Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin sat there (in the film "Escape from Alcatraz" the cells are located in the C block). On June 11, 1962, Morris and the Anglin brothers escaped through enlarged vents on the back of the cells. For six months they had broken away the cement with tools they had made themselves. They fooled the guards when they counted prisoners at night with dummies made from concrete dust, soap and collected hair from the hairdresser's shop and placed in their beds. Her absence was not noticed until morning. At the south end of the B-block you can see the utility corridor that the three used to climb onto the roof of the cell block. Here they loosened the anchoring of a ventilation shaft lining, removed it and climbed onto the outer roof. Now they ran to the north side of the roof and climbed down a sturdy, cast iron pipe, which was then removed from the prison administration. They overcame a 4.57 meter high fence and ran to the bank. Since then nothing has been seen of them. According to one theory, they taped waterproof life jackets together to form a boat at the power station and paddled away in it. A re-enactment of this theory in the television series "Myth Busters" showed that this way one can reach Angel Island quite effortlessly and carried by the current.

Al Capone's cell, B-181, is on the first floor of Block B and cannot be viewed any further. In contrast to his stays in previous prisons, however, it does not differ from the other cells.


Sunrise Alley with staircase to the dungeon (201kb).

We look into Sunrise Alley through the closed lattice wall at Block A. About in the middle, i.e. in the corridor between block A and the outer wall, there is a large concrete cuboid on the floor. It is the edging of the stairs - covered during my visit - that lead down to the remains of the civil war citadel. Until 1938, the prison inmates in solitary confinement were locked down here in old brick-built storage rooms below the cellhouse. The total darkness and silence gave this place the name "dungeon" or "spanish dungeon".

At the front of the cell wing opposite the entrance, you can see several small windows. This is where the prisoners could contact their visitors. All inmates were allowed one visit per month, each of which had to be approved by the prison director. Physical contact was not allowed, and the conversations could not be about current affairs or prison life. Communication took place over a telephone, which the guards overheard. The prisoners sat in the cell wing in front of a pane of glass behind which the relatives had taken their places in the visitor room. This location is named "Peek'n Place".


Guard uniform (106kb).

Right next to the visitor hatches, the Main Gate leads out onto the square in front of the lighthouse, the Eagle Plaza. But first you go through the administrative area of ​​the prison with the control room built in 1961 on the right side of the corridor. Here visitors are much more crowded than in the rest of the Cellhouse, because the corridor is narrow, offers a view of the nicely furnished control room through window panes, and there are also doors to other rooms with small exhibitions, but these are dead ends. So here you sometimes need a little patience or a sophisticated sliding technique, because the headphone-proven tourists are acoustically immune to friendly "Excuse me" requests for this reason.

The armory is on the left side of the aisle.In the room in front of it you can admire all kinds of exhibits, including a mannequin wearing the guard's uniform of that time. She has a stern expression, of course, to emphasize the seriousness of the whole matter. On the wall there are pictures of the four prison directors whose offices adjoin this room. The first in the league was James A. Johnston (1933-1948), called "Old Saltwater" because he let unruly prisoners spray cold water. He was previously a director in Folsom and San Quentin and a bank president. His new task was to build one of the sharpest prisons in the world. So he issued a ban on speech for the prisoners, which is why they developed a sign language. Some prisoners emptied their toilets to talk in whispers over the pipes. After four years, however, Johnston was forced to lift what was considered an inhuman ban on speaking. He was followed by Edwin B. Swope (1948-1955), known as "Cowboy" because he often wore a western hat and cowboy boots. He was previously the head of the New Mexico State Prison. The guards and staff did not like him because he undermined the relationship of authority between the guards and prisoners. He had wall radios with headphones installed in the cells and abolished the separation of colored and white prisoners. He also expanded the prisoners' job opportunities. He had their uniforms changed from the unpopular overalls to blue denim shirts and pants. He had some walls on Alcatraz painted pink because he believed it had a calming effect. From 1955 to 1961 Paul Madigan was director on Alcatraz. The inmates called him "Promising Paul" because he always agreed with the inmates' ideas and suggestions, but rarely acted on them. Unlike his predecessors, this was his first prison manager position. He had previously worked on Alcatraz as a lieutenant, captain and deputy chief and was one of the overwhelmed and shackled guards during the Cretzer-Shockley escape attempt. He supplemented the Christmas presents to the prisoners (sweets and nuts) with cigarettes. As a Catholic, he attended Holy Mass every Sunday with the prisoners. The last head of the prison was Olin G. Blackwell (1961-1963), nicknamed "Lagartija" (Spanish for wall lizard) and "Gypsy". Friends called him "Blackie". As the youngest director of the prison system, the Texan dressed in the typical wild west look, with turquoise rings and a scarf. He relaxed many restrictions, allowed more time in the exercise yard and shorter stays in the hole. He also expanded the range of things that the prisoners could buy with the money they earned in the workshops. So many prisoners began to knit and crochet. Blackwell decorated his home and office with brightly colored doilies and sent sweaters and bedspreads to the mainland as gifts. He was on vacation when Morris and the Anglin brothers escaped in 1962, damaging his reputation. When Alcatraz closed in 1963, he was watching the last prisoner leave the island.


The lighthouse (127kb).

Let's go back to the main entrance and take a look outside. The lighthouse, which is why the US government confiscated the island again in 1971 and thus ended the Indian occupation, dominates the cellhouse entrance. I want to tell his story briefly because it is interesting. In 1846, Julian Workmann received Alcatraz Island from the Mexican government. At that time California was still part of Mexico. However, the government was financially barely able to build an infrastructure in California. It was common practice to borrow money from private individuals and then pay for it with land. Julian Workmann had a contract that, in return for the preservation of the island, he was to install a light there that would guarantee the ships safety on dark nights. But Mr. Workmann transferred his new property directly to his future son-in-law, Francis Temple, without paying any further attention to the construction of a lighthouse. Around the same time, a group of revolutionaries captured Mexican General Mario Vallejo and declared California an independent republic. This uprising, known as the Bear Flag Revolt, lasted 26 days. One of the leaders, John Charles Fremont, declared himself governor of California and bought Alcatraz from Francis Temple for $ 5,000. Then came the war with Mexico, in which the United States was able to take California without much effort. The US government confiscated Alcatraz as a site for a military fort, even though it was on private property. It was argued that Julian Workmann had not fulfilled the contract according to which he was supposed to build a lighthouse and that the sale at the time had therefore not come about. It should not, as we are well known, be the only time the government used the lighthouse as an argument to repossess the island. On June 1, 1854, the flame was lit in the Alcatraz lighthouse. It was the first lighthouse on the west coast. Erected on the eastern hilltop just below the citadel, the tower jutted out of the center of a Cape Cod-style house. The lens had been traveling from France via New York and around Cape Horn to San Francisco for two years. The beacon could be seen 30.5 kilometers away. The building stood until 1912. When the large cellhouse was erected instead of the old citadel, this blocked the beacon, which is why a 25.6 meter high tower with a residential building was built in 1909. The latter were lost in a fire; the tower is all that is left today. To the left of the lighthouse are the ruins of the burned down Warden's House, which I described in more detail in the East Road report. There wasn't much time because the last ferry wouldn't wait for us. So I went back to the cell block and continued my inspection.

We now go to the side of the building that we have not yet visited, namely Park Ave, and enter the library there. This is a high room, the side of which facing cell wing C is barred up to the ceiling. The prisoners could borrow as many books as they wanted from the library - as long as this privilege was not withdrawn from them. However, there were no daily newspapers. Today the room is empty except for a few wooden shelves on the outside walls.

In the back corner there is a door to the separated cell block D and the Sunset Strip. There are five dark isolation cells, also called "the hole", a "strip cell" and 66 normal isolation cells. A stay in the strip cell, also known as "Oriental", was the harshest form of punishment. It was completely dark, there was no sink and the only toilet was a hole in the floor. The guard had to trigger the pull. The prisoner wore no clothes and was given scant diets. A mattress was only placed in the cell at night. The length of stay was usually one to two days.


View into one of the dark cells (172kb).

"The hole" was a bit more pleasant. Here there was a wash basin, a toilet and an albeit faint lamp. But even here the mattresses were removed during the day. For this, the prisoners could be held here for up to 19 days. The other isolation cells had the same equipment as the normal cells and were even a little larger. However, the prisoners stayed in the cell all day and were only allowed to shower once a week in the outer courtyard and twice. Food was also served in the cells. The first cell on the top floor directly at the entrance to the library (number 42) was the one in which "Birdman" Robert Franklin Stroud was imprisoned. This upper floor was a dubious pleasure for the inmates: one can see the skyline of San Francisco from here; freedom in front of your eyes and yet unattainable. Depending on the wind direction, you can even hear the background noise of the big city.

Of course, you take a look into one of the open holes, and the brave ones sometimes close the door. The audio tour describes how an inmate passed the time in the Hole. He had ripped off a button from his convict overalls and tossed it into the air in the cell. Then he was busy trying to find it again. Only thanks to this task did he cope with the complete separation from the outside world.


Only in Alcatraz does Broadway (254kb) begin in Times Square.


Park Ave with door to the exercise yard (198kb).

We leave Block D and return to Times Square, which is the name of the cross passage in front of the entrance to the Dining Room. The attentive observer can spot a curiosity: Below the clock, a door key hangs on a long rope in front of the gun gallery. It was used by the guards to have it at hand when there was trouble and quick action was required. It hangs so high, of course, that you couldn't reach it without the help of the guard at the gun gallery. So every inmate on Broadway could see the key to his freedom; how mean. There is a round wall opening behind the key: a motion detector in case someone should tamper with the key.

Directly at the end of Park Ave, a door leads out to the Exercise Yard. This is a large concrete square enclosed by a high wall, to which a staircase leads down. The extremely strong wind and the icy air gave me no opportunity to take a step outside. Even when taking a photo through the open door, the tears ran to such an extent that I couldn't see what I was recording. That made it clear to me once again how uncomfortable this place must have been during prison times, where you didn't have to keep paying tourists happy, but wanted to punish the inmates. Or only in winter ...

We headed for the elevator again, gave our audio player on the ground floor and took a quick look at the museum store, which had already closed. So we could see all the literature about Alcatraz on the market, but we couldn't buy anything. I would have loved to bring the audio tour with me on CD. But now it had to be quick, down the same route that we had come. The ferry "Respect" had already docked, and so a really impressive and afterwards very moving day trip came to an end.

(c) Stefan Kremer - All rights reserved

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