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Alkatraz Essay, Research Paper

The combination of smells – sharp, salty air, after dinner kitchen aromas, and many years he had spent behind bars, it was always the same day after day – that sickening, repulsive, after dinner smell (1, 22). This quote by Joseph Paul Cretzer, a prisoner in the Alcatraz penitentiary, offers a graphic interpretation of prison life on the Rock (otherwise known as Alcatraz). Was the Rock really that bad or did the media label it as a bad stereotype? Should the Alcatraz penitentiary have shut down considering it was one of the best correctional facilities ever in the U.S.A? Alcatraz was an affective prison, one that should reopen. Its History supports this claim. It was an escape proof prison for as long as it was up and running. There were many attempts ranging from people sneaking away to an all out mini-war in 1946. Also Alcatraz held a lot of history in those cement walls. Alcatraz dates back to 1846 when it was discovered by the governor of California, then it was turned into a prison for the military in 1868. Last but not least it was an example of good punishment for prisoners. They were not physically beaten and were fed a little less if you acted up (1, 11)

Alcatraz is a twelve-acre island off the coast of California surrounded by rough waters. Made of solid rock, it was easily identified by Spanish explorers. The Rock also served as a resting place for birds, providing a protective habitat. That is how Alcatraz got its name, Isla de Alcatraces (Island of Pelicans). Although Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala has no proof of ever setting foot ashore, he describes it in his diary (1,10).

No one ever set foot on the island until 1846 when Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of California, gave it to a San Francisco attorney, Julian Workman. Ownership of the island changed many times until General Charles Fremont acquired the island for the U.S. During the next eight years Alcatraz became a fort to control men looking for gold during the Gold Rush. It did not stay a military fortress for long. The U.S. turned the island into a place for confinement of military prisoners with long sentences in 1868. (1, 11) They took this idea from places such as Italy s island off the coast of Sicily and Russia s isolated prison in the White Sea. During the Indian Wars, tribe leaders were kept on the island for protection. (3: roman numeral 8) In 1906 some San Francisco jails were destroyed. The next year they approved Major R.B. Turner s plan for a steel and concrete barracks. In 1909, the Army Disciplinary Barracks were built on top of the old fort which housed World War I military prisoners. In the 1920 s numbers slowly diminished and by 1933 there were only a few left and some of the facilities were in disrepair (2,48).

In 1934, the first four wardens and staff were carefully selected after the Congress authorized the Justice Department to take control of the island. They wanted to turn the decaying prison into an escape proof prison for America s worst criminals. Seven of the twelve acres was made into a prison compound, and the other five acres were for employee residence and recreational space. The prison compound consisted of four cellblocks and places for feeding, bathing, clothing, and hospitalizing the inmates. Block A was a 125 feet long on the outer wall which was made of the old Army Disciplinary Barracks. It was the least secure of all the cellblocks. (1 , 12) Blocks B, and C were located in the interior of the building. They were each three tiers high and 150 feet long. The inmates had names for all the halls. The main aisle was Broadway, and the outer ones were Michigan Boulevard and Seedy Street. The tiers were 8 and a half feet tall with 54 cells. There were a total of 324 cells after they eliminated 12 for stairs. The D-block was the modern rebuild steel cellblock. The three tiers housed the most headstrong inmates and for the custody of the more emotionally disturbed, which was at their own request. The cells in this block were made of tool proof steel bars, floors, walls, and ceilings. These cell were safer, more modern and larger than the main cells. All lower doors were electrically opened by the gun gallery and the upper two levels were manually opened. Whenever a key was out in the open, an officer in the gun gallery would cover him. Meals would be served by a member of the D-block and carefully proportioned so that everyone got the same amount (1 , 13).

Outside was a double row of twenty-foot high cyclone fence with strands of barbed wire to block any escape to the bay. There were also towers made of steel and shatter proof glass to oversee and control the area. Those are the facilities for the penitentiary which took up seven acres. On the other five acres were three apartment houses, six cottages, and two family duplexes. This provide homes for about fifty families with good accommodations. There was also a running post office, a light house, an assembly hall, a small convenience store and docks (1 ,13). This is what the top security island of Alcatraz contains on twelve tiny acres. It is hard to believe they fit everything they needed on that chunk of rock.

A total of thirty six prisoners tried to escape the rock and seven were shot or killed, two drowned, two made it off the island but were brought back, and five are unaccounted for. Survival for those five was highly questionable considering the cold waters and treacherous surf. Here is the one if the last attempts of breaking free of the rock. One of the last attempt was a long siege that lasted three days (4 ,2). This shows the power of Alcatraz by shutting down a corrupt escape.

At exactly 6:00 a.m. Saturday morning, Associate Warden Miller and several officers converged on the utility corridor. Two officers cautiously opened the steel door. It was dark, damp, and closed during the night, and the sounds of leaking water were no longer heard. The corridor stunk of raw sewage, tear gas, and burned cordite. The floor was covered with liquid filth. Everything had been riddled thoroughly.

Miller shouted into the corridor, This is your last chance. Get out here, or you re going to spend the rest of your lives dead.

When the ultimatum went unanswered, the officers blasted the corridor with their shotguns. Blast after blast penetrated the darkness until the officers ran out of shells. Again there was no response.

Miller growled, Looks like we ll have to go in and dig them out.

Officers Steere, Mowery, and Delling volunteered to enter the corridor. Delling carried a portable searchlight; the others were armed with .45 caliber pistols. Cautiously, they waded through the ankle-deep muck, thoroughly soaking their shoes and trousers. When they reached the tangled maze of planks, pipes, and bullet-punctured ventilation ducts, they halted. Even with the searchlight, it was impossible to see what lay ahead in the black recesses of the corridor.

Pushing through the barrier, the officers came upon a grisly sight. The body of Coy, still clothed in Captain Weinhold s uniform jacket, was rigid. His left arm was extended at an angle and his right was flexed at the elbow supporting his weapon in a firing position. Four rifle bullets had torn through his body, ripping through his neck, right shoulder, left cheek, and left ear. There was a fired cartridge in the chamber of the rifle, one live round in the magazine, and 14 more in the pockets of Weinhold s jacket.

Cretzer s cold body was found a few feet behind Coy. He was wearing an officer s coat and belt with holster and ammunition clip-pouch. His pistol had slipped behind some pipes, but his position indicated that he, too, had been in a shooting position when he died. The cocked weapon, with the safety off, contained one live cartridge in the firing chamber and two in the clip. Cretzer had been shot through the left temple above the ear. The bullet had pierced his skull and torn through part of the brain. The path appeared to have been downward.

Behind Coy and Cretzer, lay Hubbard. Dressed in Coy s coat, he was facing the east end of the tunnel. Submerged in the watery filth near him was the butcher knife. He had died from a bullet above the left eye which crashed out through the back of his skull. A second rifle bullet had entered the left side of his head above the ear and emerged through the right ear. Hubbard had not been dead long. His body was warm.

Death had released the men from the prison. (1 ,214)

This was one of many attempts out of Alcatraz. It was unquestionably the most destructive attempt to escape ever. After the attempted prison break, an editorial was written. Almost all prison breaks are a matter of desperate chance, but it is probable that in any definitive study of prison breaks the wild thrust at Alcatraz would go down as the most foredoomed of all.

Even had the prisoner managed to shoot or neutralize every official on the island, they would have faced a moat through which perhaps one convict in a hundred would have a chance.

A successful break on Alcatraz, therefore, could lead only to siege, a siege in which convicts might be prepared to be hard to kill but not hard enough to make any conceivable difference to them in the end for they were up against the whole weight of their country s society. (1 :216) The San Francisco Chronicle. This just shows the brutal strength of the Alcatraz penitentiary. If a prison could tame the worst criminals of all time on one twelve acre island, there is no reason why it shouldn t be kept open and running. If it was one of the normal prisons in the U.S., it could put us in great danger. If a prisoner would escape the confines of Alcatraz, he would still have to swim in the rough waters all the way to the coast. For example on December 16, 1937, Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe, broke through a window in the mat shop, sawed their way through the fence and made it to the bay. Alcatraz launched many boats into the surrounding waters, but there was no sign of them. It was believed that they drowned in the frigid waters of San Francisco. (5 :5)

Another factor that the reconstruction or renewal of Alcatraz has on its side is the history of the island dating back to 1775 when a Spanish frigate landed on the island and gave the island its name. Custody of the island passed through many owners including the Spanish. The governor of California and Mexico were also owners of the island. Then it was turned over to the US military to ward off any gold seekers during the gold rush.

(5 ,1) The existing prison is partly based on the old military Fort Alcatraz, with cannons surrounding the fort. Today it is a National Park visited by over 1.3 million people a year. Tours of the island offers guided tours of the cells, and scenic landmarks on the island.

(5 ,8) People marvel at the power and strength of the island. It holds the history in its walls for some of the worst convicts of all time. It held the notorious Al Capone in cellblock B, and also the Birdman of Alcatraz, Robert Stroud, who stayed in the D-block and the hospital. (4 : 1) People are driven to Alcatraz from the thought of force that The Rock held in the solid island.

The last and most important reason for it to be kept up or made into a modern prison is the need for a secure place to house all the worst criminals. Alcatraz was supposed to be a place where other federal prisons would send their problem inmates. Transferees to The Rock were sent across the country on a special railroad which made the journey twice a year. Prisoners first arriving at the prison though prisons are all alike and easy to beat. They soon found out that Alcatraz was different than the others. Alcatraz employees were hand-picked all over the United States to deal with the worst. Whenever the inmates tried to test an officer it was met with swift and the inmate never bothered that officer twice. (1 :19)

The punishment of the prisoners was never physical. Instead they were put in an isolation cell or put on a 1200 calorie diet. After those punishments they

usually used a segregation cell and got a regular diet. Most inmates were driven crazy by this kind of punishment. This kind of treatment quickly spread through the prison and the barriers and officers were seldom tested. After Alcatraz proved that they could tame the untamable, the media started wondering. It was said that the guards beat and tortured the inmates and put them in a dungeon until they starved and died. Some even thought the inmates were fed water and bread as a medieval slave. Some columnists wrote that the temperature was kept at seventy degrees so if the inmates would make their way to the ocean they would freeze quicker. They also said that the officers would keep the floors spotless so if the inmates tried to run they would fall so the officers could catch them. But what they thought would control the inmates would also be equally dangerous for the officers who ran after the inmates. (1 :19)

The Alcatraz was also thought to be the last stop for prisoners; they never left the island. The truth was that they received and transferred about the same every year. There was never any more than 300 inmates at one time and few of them served more that three years on the Rock. Some of the inmates actually wrote to the Bureau of Prisons so they could stay in their one man cells, which were luxurious compared to other prisons. Around the 1940 s Alcatraz was considered to be accepted as a symbol for the federal prisons. J. Edgar Hoover once summed up crime by saying, There is no possibility of wiping out crime by trying to reform criminals. The house has been burned down. The tree has felt the blow of the ax and has fallen in the forest. The house cannot be re-erected, nor the tree again point its leaves to the sky. (1 ,20-21)

Should the Alcatraz penitentiary have shut down considering it was one of the best correctional facilities ever in the U.S.A? Alcatraz carries the history for more than a hundred years in the old crumbling walls. Alcatraz also showed its effective and swift treatment of the inmates was the best kind of treatment to give to the worst prisoners of America. It gave its inmates segregation instead of physical punishment, which seemed to put the inmates in their place. If the inmates actually did try to escape they would find that it wasn t as easy to escape The Rock as it would be inland. I think that this country needs Alcatraz back or a place like Alcatraz. The crime rate of the U.S is rising dramatically and we need to put crime to a halt or a dead stop. I will leave you with this quote by J. Edgar Hoover.

To my mind, a man can have no greater ambition than

the one which forms my sole desire to give my existence

as a member of an army of decency enrolling itself

against the battalion of darkness. I hope there are thousands

of others within the sound of my voice who feel likewise.

To combat crime, there must be a constantly growing band

of missionaries who shall go into the highways and byways

carrying with them the fearlessness and the crusading spirit

so badly needed in a hand-to-hand combat with a predatory beast.

Its name is CRIME!

(1, 232)perspiring bodies – once again left him slightly nauseated. No matter how


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