When I was in San Francisco last month for five days of photography I spent an afternoon touring Alcatraz, something I like to do whenever I am there. Being familiar with the island and history of the prison I didn’t do the usual tour this time, but rather went with the goal of creating a photo essay.
Please click each image to view larger!
Alcatraz has a long history. It was first fortified in 1853 for coastal defence, with construction taking approximately 5 years. During the American Civil War the island housed 85 cannons, and was also used as a storage arsenal. As early as 1861 Alcatraz was being used as a prison (starting with housing Civil War prisoners), and in 1868 it was officially designated as a long term detention facility for military prisoners. It was de-activated as a military prison in 1933, and transferred to the Bureau of Prisons at that time.
From 1934 when the first batch of federal prisoners arrived on the island, until 1963 when it was closed by then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the island remained a Federal Penetentiary. This is perhaps how we know it best.
Transport to the island is done by boat, and I can only imagine what it was like to be on that short ride over, watching the island get bigger as you got closer, and knowing that the only way you would be leaving the island is when you died.
Arriving at the island you are greeted by Building 64. From 1964 to 1971 Alcatraz was occupied on several occasions by First Nations as a form of protest. During this time graffiti was left like noted in the picture above. One occupation lasted 19 months.
Harkening back to the days when it was a functional prison, you quickly see this guard tower as you step off the boat:
New prisoners to the island were first prepared for their cells. They were inspected, showered, and then provided their prison garb:
Most of an inmate’s time was spent in the main cellblock:
The cell block is divided into 4 main sections (A block, B block, C block, and D block). Alcatraz has 336 main cells, and 42 solitary confinement cells. At it’s height, however, the prison only housed 302 inmates and usually averaged 260 inmates or so.
Each cell averaged 5′ by 9′ in size.
On weekends and on holidays many inmates were permitted to be outside in “The Yard” for up to 5 hours a day. As the inmates left the cell block to enter the yard they must have realized just how near, and yet how far away, freedom was. This pano, stitched together from 7 images taken with the Fuji X100s, is taken from the top of the stairs leading down into the yard. You can clearly see the Golden Gate Bridge through the fence, and they must have heard the sounds of the city each day.
Here is a 5 stitch pano looking back at the main building:
Inmates lived in their cells and dined in a communal dining hall, but if they misbehaved they would often find themselves in solitary confinement:
Prisoners placed in “the hole” were often left in the pitch dark for extended periods of time.
Many prisoners were allowed visitation rights. Visits were allowed once per month, for roughly 90 minutes per visit. The rules allowed for immediate family and other approved guests, but put strict restrictions on what discussions were permitted. Visitation was done through a small window and over the phone:
Health care (medical and dental) was provided on the island for the inmates, guards, and civilians who lived on the island. The hospital wing, located above the dining hall, had 3 five bed wards, 2 isolation rooms, treatment and surgical rooms, offices, it’s own kitchen, supply rooms and bathrooms.
The hospital has a creepy feel to it when you view it, and adds to the overall atmosphere when visiting the island:
Alcatraz even had it’s own morgue, complete with 3 vaults and an examination table:
The vaults are visible at the back of the photograph. The morgue was rarely used as dead were usually transported by boat back to the city.
Privileged inmates were allowed to work on the island, providing for the military by performing tasks such as sewing, woodworking, laundry, etc. Most of this work was done in the New Industries Building, and the Model Industries building.
The Model Industries Building (3 image pano):
Even when working in these buildings, however, the inmates were always under direct supervision. Elevated Gun Galleries were commonplace in the prison buildings, ensuring guards always had the upper hand on the inmates. Here is the gallery in the New Industries Building:
And, looking down into the building where the inmates would be working:
Perhaps the most famous piece of Alcatraz history is the escape made by inmates Frank Morris, Clarence Anglin, and John Anglin.
Much has been written about this escape attempt, in which the three chiseled out of their cells (it took almost a year of digging using spoons to create the holes under their sinks), used paper mache heads to disguise the fact that they were missing, escaped to the roof by climbing a ventilation shaft, climbed down to the water, and used life jackets and rafts improvised from raincoats and rubber cement to swim off the island. The escape was not detected until the following morning. Adding to the intrigue is the fact that the rafts and life jackets were found on nearby Angel Island, but the three were never heard from again.
The paper mache head and escape route carved out under the sink:
The shaft they crawled into from their cells:
I highly recommend you visit this site if you are in the Bay area. If you are a photographer, take your time while you are here – the photographic opportunities abound.
Until next time!