HOME /// 400 Day LETS Odyssey - CONTENTS

400 Day LETS Odyssey
Copyright � James Taris

JAMES TARIS around the World- (2003-4)

Alcatraz Island is only about 1-and-a-half miles off the San Francisco shore.

USA - San Francisco (Wk.2 of 2 weeks)
Week 52 of World Tour

Alcatraz Prison

If you were a prisoner on Alcatraz and locked up in solitary confinement, what would you do to stop yourself from going insane?

Even though prison regulations entitled solitary confinement inmates to have 30 minutes of sunlight per day, some prisoners were deprived of this entitlement, and spent as many as 19 days without any light or sound. One prisoner, Jim Quillen, was in solitary confinement for upto 3 months! This is how he handled his solitary confinement experience.

“I ripped a button off my shirt and threw it up in the air. Then I spun myself around a few times and spent my time trying to find that button in the dark. Once I found it, I tossed it up again. And again and again. It was the only way I could stop myself from going crazy.”

Alcatraz was opened as a Maximum Security Penitentiary, in 1934, for the baddest prisoners of all. The worst of the worst. The toughest of the toughest.

My visit to Alcatraz started with a 10 minute ferry ride from San Francisco’s Pier 41 to Alcatraz Island, only about 1-and-a-half miles (2 kms) off-shore. The ferries were constantly booked up, and it was unusual to find a seat available on the same day you booked. Luckily I was travelling alone, so I was able to get the last available seat on the 1.45pm ferry.

A very long queue began forming 30 minutes before departure, and every passenger had to have a compulsory photograph taken before boarding the ferry. Fortunately there was no obligation to buy, and fortunately the photo session only took about a second from the time you looked up at the camera.

Once on board, I became a voyeur, watching the people still queuing up on the pier. A group of young teenage school children were jumping over the guard rails as a short cut to the ferry next to us. A rather rotund straggler eyed the barrier apprehensively before attempting to copy his fellow students, then gingerly tried to follow suit. Unfortunately, his ankle twisted under the weight of his body, and soon he was crying uncontrollably. Luckily his teachers noticed his plight and came to the rescue. They couldn’t carry him to the ferry (he was heavier than them!) but they did escort him onto the ferry which waited patiently until he was safely on board.

Soon our ferry was on its journey. Out on the bay, five kite-surfers caught the strong winds in their brightly coloured kites, skimming quickly across the water and leaping up and over the shallow waves from time-to-time. And moments later we were docking at Alcatraz.

We were met on shore by a Ranger Guide who gave us the standard dockside Orientation Talk. She was dressed in a khaki uniform and would’ve made an excellent prison warden. She was silver-haired and rough-looking. If you could imagine what a female platoon sergeant would look like, you could imagine her. Needless to say, she was very informative, very precise, and not in the mood for any rubbish from her newly acquired gathering. So we all got along famously.

Former inmate, Darwin Coon, was a special guest in the Orientation building, near the bookshop, where he was signing his books for anyone who purchased a copy. Other former inmates owned stalls on Pier 41 and used their infamousness to sell Alcatraz souvenirs from their stalls. Like Australia’s Chopper Reed, this was one of those rare occasions when ex-prisoners could make a career out of promoting their notorious backgrounds.

Alcatraz Island is a small National Park, only 12 acres in size, and has over 1,000, 000 visitors each year. The word, Alcatraz, comes from the Spanish word, Alcatrases, which means pelicans, as pelicans used to inhabit the island 200 years ago.

But the main attraction is the prison. Or more specifically, the inmates, such as Al Capone and The Birdman of Alcatraz. Both their cells were featured on the Alcatraz tour. Al Capone only served 3-and-a-half years at Alcatraz for tax evasion, the only crime they could pin on him. He was finally released in 1939 and died in 1947. But I found Robert Stroud’s (The Birdman’s) story quite interesting.

Stroud, contrary to popular belief, and obviously due to Burt Lancaster’s famous movie, Birdman Of Alcatraz, never kept any birds in Alcatraz. He’d had about 300 birds in his previous prison, but when he was sent to Alcatraz, he had to leave the birds behind. The authority’s argument was that if he was allowed to keep birds, the other prisoners would’ve followed suit and demanded the right to keep birds, cats or other pets as well. And being a maximum security prison, this would’ve caused mayhem. Stroud stayed in Alcatraz for 17 years and, understandably, was one of its most problematic prisoners. Ironically, he died in another prison in 1963, the same year Alcatraz was closed, and just hours before John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November that year. So Stroud’s death went unannounced due to the unprecedented media coverage linked to JFK’s death.

As I walked up to the cell block at the top of the island, I noticed some Pacific gulls nesting in the cliffs and hundreds of other Pacific Gulls nested in a closed off area amongst demolished buildings on the edge of the island. Actually, one nest was built in a narrow garden bed beside the road going up the hill. I only noticed it because the bird sitting on the nest squawked at me. Soon it got up and flew away, leaving behind a single khaki and grey spottled egg (about the size of a chicken egg) in a grass and feather nest. Even though the nest was close enough to handle, it was amazingly well camouflaged, and being on a small ledge, out of harms way.

My ferry ticket included a 35 minute audio-phone tour of Alcatraz Prison. The prison was already packed with tourists from earlier ferry rides, all concentrating on the stories being related on their audio-phones.

Alcatraz was a Maximum Security Penitentiary from 1934 to 1963. It boasts never having had a successful prisoner escape. Yet, on June 12, 1962, 3 prisoners did escape and were never found. The record books at Alcatraz acknowledges this as an attempted escape. As there was no evidence that they’d reached the shore, it was presumed the prisoners most likely drowned in their escape bid. Therefore, an unsuccessful escape attempt.

There were 3 levels of cells in the prison. I’m sure many prison movies must’ve been made on Alcatraz because it all looked so familiar. Each cell was only 5ft wide and 9ft long and about 7ft high. They each had a small wash basin, flushing toilet and a bunk, and that’s about all. I walked into one. Being confined in there for several days would be frustrating. But being stuck in there for several years would be unbearable.

Working prisoners spent 17 hours a day inside their cells, and non-workers spent 23 hours a day inside. D-Block housed the worst of the prisoners. Cell D-42, on the top right-hand corner of D-block, was where the Birdman’s cell was for 6 years. Even though these cells were somewhat larger than the others, they were colder and more damp. D-Block included the solitary confinement cells too. I walked into one and shut my eyes. I couldn’t imagine spending 5 minutes there, let alone upto 3 months!

But one thing was for sure. If I ever did get put away into solitary confinement, I'd certainly make sure to take along a button.

This article is taken from the ebook,
400-Day LETS Odyssey

About the book

James Taris web sites