The How Alcatraz Worked.

HOW ALCATRAZ WORKED
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How did Alcatraz work?



Alcatraz is perhaps the most famous prison in the entire United States, although it hasn’t been in operation for many years. “The Rock” as it’s become known is so remote and desolate that not even plant life can survive. This does not bode well for the many inmates it saw over the years and it’s not supposed to. Alcatraz was meant to be an inescapable prison, made out of the thickest and hardest steel and surrounded by tidal waves, as it lies on an ocean. But there is some life surrounding the prison and that is the great white sharks that call the waters near The Rock home.

Alcatraz was the worst of the worst prisons and it was meant only for the worst of the worst criminals. It was such a tough life in this prison that some members of the Mob and other gangs actually tried to find their way in for a short stay to add credit to their name upon release. Alcatraz quickly became a legend, with Hollywood movies showing it as a place where ghosts and spirits roam as well as making the prisoners who stayed there appear to be heroes. Prisoners such as the most famous of all time, the Birdman of Alcatraz, all helped to add to the legend that Alcatraz soon became. Although some stories of Alcatraz proved to stay true to its legend, with prisoners digging out walls with a spoon to escape and escapes that left a myriad of missing bodies in its wake, life at Alcatraz was actually no worse than any other federal prison.

Today, Alcatraz has become a national landmark for the United States and its history extends far more than the thirty years that it was used as a prison. During that time it has been used as a fort, a lighthouse, a location of Native American occupations, and a national park. But how did the prison work and who were some of its famous inmates? Why did the stories of Alcatraz become larger than life and add to the many legends we still hear about today?

Alcatraz sits on an island in San Francisco Bay and it’s actually the top of a mountain. It wasn’t always surrounded by water but where the water now lies, was actually once a valley. When sea levels rose thousands of years ago, water filled the valley. The reason behind the island’s lack of plant life is that very little soil covers the island, making its nickname, The Rock, even more meaningful. The water surrounding the prison are also very dangerous, and not only because there are so many sharks in it. The water is very cold, approximately below sixty degrees Fahrenheit. The currents are extremely strong, creating another deterrent for those considering escape and rather than moving towards San Francisco, they move towards the Pacific Ocean so if a person were to get caught in them, they would wind up very far from land.

In 1912, the prison was built as a military prison and was constructed of steel and concrete. It underwent huge renovations and remodelling in 1934 and that was when it became one of the highest-tech prisons in the entire United States. Although the prison was originally designed to be able to hold 600 prisoners, it only used half of that space when it was turned into a federal prison. The portion that was once part of the military prison but no longer used by the government was closed off with grates. The myth that Alcatraz was a prison that made escape near impossible was more than just a myth. There were many factors that made escape unlikely. Not only were the surrounding waters death-defying and the concrete and steel walls almost impenetrable but each cell block was also its own prison within the larger prison. Each cell was its own block made of concrete walls and no wall of any cell block touched any part of the exterior walls of the prison. During the time it spent serving as a military prison the bars on these cell blocks were made from iron but during the remodeling of 1934, these were taken out and a type of steel that could not be cut with even a hacksaw were installed.

Other renovations took place as well. These included the three main cell blocks: A, B, and C. They all ran parallel to each other, with A being the shortest and B and C taking up most of the length of the prison. Each block was three cell blocks high and each cell was only five feet wide and nine feet deep. Within this tiny space were a bed, sink, toilet, and small desk. Each cell also had two shelves occupying the back wall. There was only one prisoner per cell block and three of the walls were solid concrete, while the remaining wall was made of the steel bars. There was one block, Block D, which housed the worst kind of criminal. This block was reserved for inmates that could not act accordingly among the prison’s general public. When prisoners were sent here, they would remain in their cell nearly all the time, and were only given one hour of exercise a week. If Block D was not enough punishment to scare them, they would then be sent to “The Hole.” The Hole was made up of only five cells but these cells received absolutely no light. There was one cell that was particularly bad. It didn’t have a toilet but instead, prisoners were expected to use the hole in the floor. To make matters almost unbearable, prisoners were usually put into the cell with unclothed and weren’t given any blankets. The little food that was brought to them was always very unpleasant.

Life inside of Alcatraz for those inmates that were in one of the three main blocks wasn’t as unbearable as legend would have it. Each day was the same with prisoners beginning the day by sweeping out their cell. They would then get dressed for the day and stand so that the guards could take a head count. From there they would go to the mess hall for breakfast after which they would go to their assigned duties. These duties included working on the docks, in the laundry, or at an industrial building that sat on the island. Sometimes they were given time to read and study in the library. They would eat dinner and then go back to their cells to wait for 9:30 p.m., which was when the lights would be turned off.

The prisoners kept their humor about them as they served their time, giving each hallway between the blocks nicknames. The hallway in the center was named Broadway, and the other two were named Michigan Avenue and Park Avenue. The area that sat between the mess hall and the blocks was named Times Square. At the opposite end of the cell blocks was what prisoners called the “gun gallery.” It was given this name due to the guards that would stroll the many walkways, all armed and ready to take shot at any prisoner who caused too much trouble or tried to escape. At one point under the reign of the first Warden, James Johnston, speaking was prohibited at Alcatraz. If a prisoner were to speak when they were not allowed to, they would be taken to one of the isolation cells. Prisoners soon tired of this and began to speak all at once without the fear of all being taken into isolation because there simply were not enough cells to allow this.

Prisoners also had very different views regarding their treatment during their time at Alcatraz. While some thought that the treatment was an extreme type of cruelty and held protests, others believed that the prison was one of the safer ones in the country. The prisoners that viewed the treatment as safe also thought that Alcatraz was probably one of the cleanest in the country due to the extreme discipline and routine that was all part of the practice of being a prisoner there. Other people lived on the island along with those housed inside of Alcatraz’s walls. These people included the guards and their families. Any children within those families would take a ship out to the mainland so that they could attend school every day. Because there was no plant life on the island, boat trips also had to be arranged for shopping excursions. However, the island did have a movie theater and other entertainment and recreational venues. Life for these families was much different than that of the average American family. Toy guns were forbidden in case a prisoner got a hold of one and threatened a guard with it. Magazines and newspapers also had to be burned because prisoners were not allowed any news of the outside world. Any razors, knives, or silverware that were no longer of use had to be thrown into the bay.


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