Scheduled for release this year, Fox TV have slated in the upcoming Alcatraz, a brand new series, described as a chilling thriller centered on the most infamous prison in America, the one-time home to the most notorious criminals in the United States. Coming from executive producer J.J. Abrams and writer and executive producer Elizabeth Sarnoff, the series stars Sarah Jones, Jeffrey Pierce, Robert Forster, Sam Neill, Jorge Garcia, Jonny Coyne and Jason Butler Harner.
This is the latest in a catalogue of film and television offerings based on or about the prison. Other well-known titles include The Rock, The Birdman of Alcatraz, Escape from Alcatraz…and many, many more. For some lesser known titles, see posters at foot of this article.
So I often wondered why the place continues to hold such allure for authors, screenwriters, film and television viewers, not to mention the many thousands of tourists and visitors whom flock there every year. And just like them, I recently took the boat to the infamous, island prison museum. Or rather, I took the tourist cruise.
It is what it is, and to be honest, initially, I was a little underwhelmed. Sure, it must have been a frighteningly harsh reality for the men, some as young as eighteen, whom landed there to face the communal showers and the naked walk of shame to the tiny, five foot wide, nine foot deep cells, where nothing but a steel bed, an uncovered toilet, a tiny sink, and a table and stool, fixed to the wall, complete with the “regulation rule book”, awaited them.
Though a minority few did allow the streaming warm rays of sun that beamed across the San Francisco Bay to filter down from the high-up, fortified windows of the cellblock, most of the cells did not allow natural daylight. The threat and reality of solitary confinement was very real for unruly souls incarcerated there, but no inmate ever had to share a cell, and Alcatraz offered every prisoner three square meals a day, all they could eat, as long as they ate it and didn’t waste food. One of the aspects of the tour of the prison is a story of how all 200 and odd inmates upturned their tables because their spaghetti sauce tasted so bad. A couple of discharges from a prison officer’s rifle was enough to restore order, and later, the quality of the dish! They had access to medical treatment, which the likes of raving, syphilis-riddled Al Capone and the dangerous psychopath, the Birdman, Robert Franklin Stroud, availed of, spending most of their prison terms there in the slightly more comfortable infirmary.
A rehabilitative approach came later, when prisoners at Alcatraz could sketch, paint, crochet (yes, you read that right!) had music hours when they could play instruments, had a library and could read as many books as they wanted, none of a violent nature, obviously. They could study academic courses, earn visitation rights, albeit through a partitioned glass, as well as the opportunity to work in the surrounding island gardens. Some of the prisoners even worked on cleaning and cooking duties in the Wardens house.
Perhaps the Native American Indian, Mexican and Black American prisoners received the harshest treatment, which was mainly perpetuated by other redneck, hick prisoners, forcing segregation that added a further punitive layer for those particular men. This says more about the racism that was reflecting in the society of the time as a whole, rather than a unique Alcatraz experience. In its lifetime as a federal penitentiary, 1934 to 1963, there were eight prisoners murdered by their fellow inmates on Alcatraz, five committed suicide, and fifteen died from natural causes. There is no record of any inmate having died through ill-treatment at the hands of the prison officers.
Harsh is the reality of any punitive system, and based on what I learned from my visit, the practices at Alcatraz seem no worse than anything that you cannot see today in prisons all over the world, where systems are failing miserably in their approaches to punishment and rehabilitation. For instance, the statistics for our very own Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison make grim reading: http://www.amnesty.ie/sites/default/files/HRII/UPR12,%20Amnesty%20International%20submission%20for%20the%20UPR%20of%20Ireland,%20March%202011.pdf And need I mention Quantánomo? http://amnesty.ie/news/ten-years-guantánamo-–-decade-failure
I’m not painting Alcatraz as a picture of an idyllic prison environment here, far from it, but I am differentiating between the myth of movies and the reality that was. On the wall of the bookshop, there is a quote from an ex-prison officer, that alludes to the movie myth of the twitchy-eyed Governor and the sadistic prison warden…but the reality is that, apart from the unruly few, for the most part, and in the context of the time period, age of the building (The building that exists now was erected in 1906 from a fort that was built in 1859) and its unsheltered, weathered exposure to the damp-inducing elements, prisoners were treated in humane conditions, with inmates and wardens getting along just fine.
So to my earlier question as to why the place continues to hold such allure? Perhaps, as I stood there, on the inside, looking out, and so encased in that ugly, decayed beast that juts out from the belly of such beauty, and the pleasing-to-the-eye skyline of the city so near and yet so far…my imagining of times past and of festive, celebratory nights there gave me an answer. Nights such as New Year’s Eve, when the teasing, haunting sounds of the revellers must have carried over that mass of water and in through the barred windows, and indeed, still do.
And from that sense of place and emotion, I came to understand, sort of, true isolation and the solitary meaning of being completely unfree…and no matter how fantastical the myths of Alcatraz become, that this one devastating glimpse into the essence of humanity must linger in every crack and crevice of that ancient cellblock, prickling the intuitive mind, and taunting the imagination of those very same authors and screenwriters that I mentioned earlier…a mecca for story inspiration, and a haven for the ghosts that surely linger there…immortalised in fiction, but immortalised nonetheless…