The first thing you notice about Alcatraz is how small the prison actually is. Rather than the industrial-sized farm for felons you may have expected, The Rock only occupies a minor portion of the island it inhabits – the rest being given over to a protected wildlife habitat among the ruins of the 19th century fort that once defended San Francisco Bay. It’s almost, you could say, an intimate place to be an inmate. In truth, it never held more than about 200 prisoners at one time – though granted those mighty few happened to be some of the most dangerous men in the world at the time: Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, Doc Barker, and Robert Stroud – the Birdman of Alcatraz – to name just a few.
In use as a Federal Penitentiary for just 29 years, it’s amazing how much mythology has accrued. Perhaps it’s due to the tantalizing proximity to the city itself: prisoners in the isolation ward known as cell block D faced the shoreline and reported that when the breeze was right they could hear music and noise wafting over from the yacht club’s parties just a mile away. Or perhaps it’s the prison’s seeming impenetrability, offering no chance of escape: 36 prisoners were involved in 14 escape attempts but no prisoner successfully escaped. Three of them did make a daring, deft attempt – immortalized in the Clint Eastwood film, Escape from Alcatraz – but the official story reports that despite all the effort involved in chiseling through the concrete around their air vents and leaving papier mache dummies tucked up in their beds, the three men u;timately drowned in the cold waters of the bay while trying to reach the mainland.
Another lesser-known fascination with the island lies in its role as part of the civil rights movements of the 1960’s: on the morning of November 20, 1969, 79 American Indians landed on the island (despite an attempted Coast Guard blockade) and began an Occupation to protest the government’s confiscation of native lands. Lasting 19 months, the occupation was eventually ended by a force of government officers who removed the last of the dwindling protesters. Though fraught with controversy, the Occupation is hailed by many as a success for having led to the end of the government’s Termination & Relocation policy, which sought to assimilate native tribes into mainstream society. (Interesting side note: as a child, the actor Benjamin Bratt was in the occupation with his mother and his siblings.)
Then again, maybe we all just have an abiding – if slightly creepy – fascination with people and places that operate outside of the social norms. How else do you explain the line of idiot tourists eagerly waiting to have themselves photographed inside a crumbling jail cell?