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The stretch of water known as San Francisco Bay was transformed in the 1930s. No one intended this, but the bay, famous for rapid shifts in weather, light and mood, became a kind of stage set for a drama that might have been entitled ‘What makes the US run?’ In November 1936, the Bay Bridge opened, linking San Francisco and Oakland and Berkeley, with Yerba Buena Island as a stepping-stone. Then, in April 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge appeared, connecting the northwest tip of San Francisco (Fort Point) to Marin County and the north. The Golden Gate – painted a kind of brick-red, running north-south, and serving as the transom to the Pacific – is shorter, but it is better looking and better known. One of the most striking views of the Golden Gate can be had from a small rocky island due east. But if you wanted to see it from there you had to be a prisoner or a guard on Alcatraz, an island named by the Spanish explorers for the pelicans that once flew there. Well, the pelicans got away.

From where I live in San Francisco, it’s only a few minutes’ walk to the ridge that looks onto the bay. It’s a glorious sight, but there’s also something disturbing about it. We don’t expect to see prisons. Like torture or capital punishment, they depend on being kept out of view. If the public really had to witness them, surely they’d cease to exist. So sometimes I ask people who’ve been here far longer than I have: how did people look at the prison without feeling dismay?

David Ward and Gene Kassebaum have compiled an immense study of the prison in what they call the gangster years, from its foundation in 1933 to 1948.* Drawing on interviews with inmates and guards that the government gathered decades ago, they have reconstructed the history of the prison in its first years and chronicled the lives of its ‘celebrity prisoners’. Ward and Kassebaum are both veterans of penal studies, properly fascinated with Alcatraz as a test case in the debate about incarceration and whether it should be a punishment and a deterrent, or a way of turning convicts into good (or passable) citizens. Alcatraz: The Gangster Years is crammed with useful facts and stories, but it lacks a little in the way of imagination. It doesn’t grasp, for example, the dotty contrast between the positive attitudes embodied in those two bridges and the clenched fist of the prison. Nor does it see how the landscape of the bay by 1940, say, asked the question whether the US was going to go the way of freedom or restraint.

Both bridges were begun in 1933, part of a Rooseveltian urge to make the Bay Area one country, available for goods, tourism and military expeditions. San Francisco treasures its history. Reunions for survivors of the 1906 earthquake have finally stopped (there is no one left alive who was there), but a lot of people recall the 1930s and the change that came. Until those bridges and the construction of the highway system, the greater Bay Area had relied on ferries for trade and traffic. (The Golden Gate Bridge is still a bit of a fraud: Marin, Sonoma and Napa are part of the Bay Area now, but if you go much further north – and it’s 250 miles before you hit Oregon – people hardly know the place names. Humboldt County is a retreat and a recess, a place where marijuana farming is pursued seriously.) The Bay Bridge worked so well from the start that Gertrude Stein could no longer get away with saying that in Oakland there is no there there.

And what about Alcatraz? Ward and Kassebaum make it clear that by 1933 the dream of American connectedness had a dark underside. The era of Prohibition and the Great Depression had unleashed a crime wave. I apologise for ‘unleashed’ but it’s hard to avoid headlinese when you’re talking about a crime wave that itself owed something to sound movies (‘gunfire – a scream’) and what were called gangster pictures. In its exuberance over spectacular slaughter and its fear of censorship, the subtitle of Howard Hawks’s great rowdy movie Scarface (1932) declared organised crime to be the ‘Shame of a Nation’. But many people unashamedly rooted for the gangsters. As Francis Ford Coppola would observe when he made the first two Godfather films, the set was crowded whenever they were doing shoot-’em-up scenes. And ‘Scarface’ was plainly an allusion to Al Capone, one of the first men sent to Alcatraz (he was prisoner number 85).

It was in response to the wave of gangsterism (and the mixed thrill the public got from it) that Alcatraz was conceived as a prison of prisons. It was for hard cases: very violent men, men who had already escaped from other places, famous outlaws, criminals who were reckoned beyond reach or treatment; all in all, the worst 250 public enemies in America (not counting those in Washington). Alcatraz, which had been a military prison before the Feds took it over, wasn’t big; it couldn’t be, because there was no water on the island. Every drop of water used there – and the island housed the guards and their families as well as the prisoners – had to be brought in by boat. The per capita cost of keeping a prisoner on Alcatraz was nearly three times what it was at a regular prison. (In 1933 the US prison population was about ninety thousand; at the end of 2007, it was 2.3 million. Clearly something hasn’t worked.)

What was it like on Alcatraz? It was a prison of one-man cells, the basis of a regime of isolation and silence. Inmates got their wake-up call at 6.30 a.m. They then faced a five-day week of regular counts, three meals a day, work assignments, eight-minute rest periods and lock-up by 4.45 p.m: the long night was nearly 14 hours alone in a small cell. Prisoners were allowed to read books from the library and to receive one visitor a month. At weekends, there were chapel services, movies and a few hours a day in the exercise yard. There was also an extensive punishment system that relied in extreme cases on the ‘hole’ – a tiny space with no light and no sound. It was also called ‘the dungeon’, or ‘the coffin’.

Prisoners wrote and received little mail. There were no psychologists or social workers on the staff. Radios were not allowed until the late 1950s. Strict silence was the rule for many hours. It was part of the legend that some men ‘went mad’ there. Ward and Kassebaum believe that was an exaggeration, but they don’t minimise the ordeal, especially for the milder criminals who got caught up there, or who had been there when it was just a military prison. For penologists, the most intriguing part of Alcatraz may be the material that shows how many prisoners made another life after release. Was there something in the hours of solitary reflection and reading that enlarged their lives?

Another legend was that Alcatraz was escape-proof. The structure of the prison was said to be impenetrable. But a number of prisoners found soft or rusted bars and crumbling stone that enabled them to get out of their cells or one of the workshops. Those who ran the prison believed its ultimate strength was its location – at least a mile and a quarter from land in a bay where the water was very cold and driven by fierce and unmapped currents and tides. I wonder. When the idea of a prison on Alcatraz was proposed, a local newspaper found a teenage girl who used to swim out to the island and back again. To this day, there are hardy members of swimming clubs who do the same.

In December 1937, Ted Cole and Ralph Roe escaped from the Model Industries building and took to the water. No one has ever claimed to have seen them again. The guards spread a story that the men had been shot; inmates claimed they’d received a postcard from Denver, Colorado, saying: ‘Give my love to the boys.’ In 1941 the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the two of them had made a fortune in South America.

The local press spread these rumours partly because the official policy had been to obstruct and eliminate as much news and communication from Alcatraz as possible. Guards were forbidden to talk. Inmates’ releases sometimes hinged on whether or not they would talk. So the picture naturally became more lurid and paranoid and the headline writers soon began calling the place ‘Devil’s Island’, though on the real Devil’s Island, six miles off the Guyana coast, conditions were far worse than on Alcatraz. Indeed, this book suggests there’s more than a grain of truth in the story still told by guides to the prison – Alcatraz is a tourist site now – that the diet was intended to make them soft, so that the waters of the bay would be a greater test. The menu for Monday, 14 July 1940, was as follows:

Breakfast

Stewed peaches; wheat meal; milk and sugar; minced bacon; scrambled eggs; hot cornbread; bread; coffee.

Lunch

Navy bean soup; beef stew and vegetables; steamed potatoes; creamed peas; sour pickles; bread; coffee.

Dinner

Steamed frankfurters; Lyonnaise potatoes; succotash; lettuce salad; rice custard pudding; coffee.

It’s not Chez Panisse, but it’s better than porridge.

The fact that Cole and Roe’s bodies were never found is suggestive: in the history of the Golden Gate Bridge (where the currents are more severe), the bodies of most suicides have been found (though sometimes up or down the Pacific coastline). The survival of Cole and Roe hardly matters now, except as material for story, but the melancholy, secondary function of the Golden Gate Bridge (more than a thousand suicides so far) does cast another light on people suffering severe sentences on Alcatraz. San Francisco prides itself on being a liberal place to live, but the urge to self-destruction saw the bridge and recognised destiny. There are still disputes about whether to build a ‘suicide barrier’ on the bridge or whether to leave the decision to the person who spends an hour gazing at the water below.

That’s where the drama comes in, and where the sheer visibility of the bay is so important. Most American prisons are tucked away. Manzanar, an internment camp for Japanese Americans, was so far away it felt like oblivion. But Alcatraz has a design that obliged the prison’s inmates and those sentenced to the city to notice each other. When the wind was right, prisoners could hear telephones ringing or cocktail party chatter in the city. And on the mainland there were many houses and apartments – stacked up like grandstands – that had telescopes to get a little bit of the inside prison story. The isolation for a prisoner was more surreal since he could see and feel life going on. The privilege of freedom was more acutely felt because of the easy shift in point of view. It was like finding a corpse on your doorstep in the morning. Has any other American prison existed under such extreme conditions of observation and proximity? At the very least it makes one wonder how the public would react if Alcatraz were reopened now: in fact, in the recent discussion over the closing of Guantánamo, Senator Bond of Missouri suggested, facetiously or not, that detainees from Cuban soil not fit to be freed might be sent to Alcatraz.

Alcatraz was closed as a prison in 1963, in part because it had become expensive to run, but also because a riot and an escape had damaged its reputation. In 1946, there was a battle in which two officers and five inmates died (two of the inmates were executed). A group of prisoners had plotted to take over a cell block, seize guns and then, using guards as hostages, escape on the prison launch. The plot failed, but the shock it elicited marked a change in people’s perception of Alcatraz. One of the rioters, Samuel Shockley, was executed even though he was reckoned insane – he had an IQ of 54. After the war, only a few of the old-time gangsters were left – and because this book draws its own line at 1948 we get too little of Robert Stroud (the ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’, portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the film of the same name), the prisoner who made the most of his incarceration. There would be one more escape, in 1960. Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers, Clarence and John, got away – and not one body washed up anywhere. That’s the basis for the Don Siegel film, Escape from Alcatraz (1979), in which Clint Eastwood played Morris and the warden was the late Patrick McGoohan, so famous himself as ‘The Prisoner’. There was a rich irony in the casting of McGoohan, for wardens and the society they are paid to defend are as much prisoners of the idea of incarceration as the inmates.

Are we remotely within reach of a moral compass that could show us a way to do without prison? The odds are against it. In America today, prison building is a business, and people argue over whether per capita costs of care and maintenance match those at Ivy League schools. The new administration has so many problems to face, it’s hard to think that prison reform will be high on the list. Yet many Americans have a grim sense that the state of our prisons will soon enough prompt the shame of a nation. Would probation be any less expensive or more effective? Perhaps, but it’s no more thinkable to let John Gotti or Zacharias Moussaoui walk the streets than it was to release Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly or Alvin Karpis. Some guardians of public safety would make a principle out of such Public Enemies. Meanwhile, the effects of poverty, ignorance, illness and corruption make crime look like a game of chequers. Furthermore, prisons like Marion and Florence, modelled on Alcatraz, have become hotbeds of racial violence, rape, torture and drug dealing. For many Americans, prisons are the living threat of hell. Beside them Alcatraz seems restful.

So Alcatraz is open to the public now. You can get in the motor launches, sail out to the island, and have a guided tour. You can do a minute in solitary if you wish. You can look out at the Golden Gate and at the city itself, and you can see the wisdom in making sure that we’re reminded of the existence of prisons and the effects of poverty and the absence of education. If we saw those things every day, we might feel compelled to end them. As I write, judges in the California courts have ordered the state to free 55,000 prisoners over the next three years. California is broke, and because of its ‘three strikes’ rule its prisons are crowded beyond what is legally allowed. What will we do with these people, especially in a season of soaring unemployment? Send them to college?

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