On March 21, 1963, 60 years ago, the last permanent residents of Alcatraz Island left it. About 30 "pale, silent men" with shackled arms and legs were brought ashore. Thus ended the era of one of the most famous prisons in the world, intended for extremely dangerous and incorrigible criminals.
Historians talk about how a fortress-prison arose on a small rocky island, whether someone was able to escape from it, why it was closed and what is there today.
The lighthouse and the euphoria of gold diggers
In the middle of the XIX century, after the discovery of gold deposits in California, the active development of the small island of Alcatraz, located just a few kilometers off the coast of San Francisco, began. The large number of ships arriving in the area contributed to the construction of the lighthouse on Alcatraz, which was the first such structure on the west coast of the United States. Due to the growth of the population of San Francisco caused by the gold rush, additional protection of the bay was required, and in 1850 a fort began to be built on the island.
Due to its geographical location, surrounded by the cold waters of the Pacific Ocean with strong currents, Alcatraz has become an ideal place to isolate people. At first, prisoners of war and military personnel who seriously violated discipline or committed crimes were sent to the island. In 1911, thanks to the efforts of prisoners, a modern prison complex called The Rock was built, which became world famous.
What were the conditions in which the prisoners were held?
In 1934, the first criminals arrived on the island. The capacity of the complex was 450 prisoners, but on average Alcatraz held about 250 people. Criminals were placed in solitary confinement cells measuring 2.7 by 1.5 meters: the average man could, with his arms outstretched, touch both walls. The cells were equipped with a sink with cold water, a corner toilet and a small bed.
Initially, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary strictly forbade interaction between inmates, but some still found ways to socialize, such as while eating or walking in the courtyard. However, when prisoners began to communicate through the sewer system, emptying the toilets, the prison administration took steps to stop such attempts to communicate.
Despite this, some prisoners found their advantages in Alcatraz's strict regime. One of them noted that the solitary confinement system virtually eliminated the possibility of assault or sexual violence by a cellmate. In addition, the staff was quite loyal, albeit silent, and the food was considered the best among all prisons in the United States.
One of the rare privileges that prisoners in Alcatraz had was the opportunity to take hot showers. However, this privilege was not granted for humanitarian reasons: the prison administration believed that prisoners accustomed to comfort and not hardened would not be able to swim across the cold waters of San Francisco Bay in the event of an escape attempt, which reduced their chances of a successful attempt.
Escape of Morris and the Anglins
In the 29 years of the federal prison's existence, at least 14 escape attempts have been recorded. Of the 36 prisoners who tried to escape, 23 were detained, 6 were shot, 2 drowned, and another 5 are still missing.
The most famous escape attempt was one made by Frank Morris, a bank robber, and brothers John and Clarence Anglin in June 1962. To get to the uncontrolled service corridor behind the cells, the prisoners enlarged the ventilation slots with a homemade drill created from a spoon and a motor from a vacuum cleaner. They had to work during the "musical hour" before going to bed, when they were allowed to play the accordion, which suppressed the noise of the instrument. The slots in the wall were hidden behind fake segments made of plywood.
However, the prisoners did not stop there. To prevent the guards from noticing their absence during the night rounds, Morris and the Anglins left in their beds mock-ups of their heads made of papier-mâché and hair stolen from the barbershop. It was planned to get to the mainland with the help of a homemade inflatable raft made of rubberized raincoats and oars made of plywood.
It is known for sure that the prisoners managed to get out of the cells, climb the engineering pipes to the roof of the prison block, go down to the water and sail away from the shore on the assembled ship. What happened to Morris and the Anglin brothers next, history does not report: they were never found, alive or dead. Some suggest that the prisoners could not even reach the shore and they drowned in the bay, unable to cope with the control and cold water. However, there are those who believe that Morris and the Anglins successfully moored to the shore, hid and after a while fled to Latin America.
Closure of the prison
Alcatraz was closed as a federal prison on March 21, 1963. The last convicts, accompanied by guards, left the island and were transferred to other US institutions. The main reason for the closure was the high cost of maintaining the prison, as everything needed, from food to equipment, had to be transported from the mainland by water. In addition, buildings and communication systems quickly fell into disrepair due to salty sea spray and winds, which required a multimillion-dollar overhaul.
8 years after the closure of the prison, the US government decided to turn Alcatraz into part of the Golden Gate National Park. In 1973, the former prison became available to tourists, who organized regular flights on ferries and boats from San Francisco.
Since then, approximately 1 million people have visited the island every year. Tourists have to overcome the road from the pier to the main prison building along ruined paths and steep stairs, which is equivalent to climbing to the 13th floor on foot. The law allows you to drink and eat only in special places. Suddenly, sunny weather can give way to fog and icy winds. Thus, a visit to one of the strictest prisons in the world in the past remains not the easiest undertaking for tourists.