Alcatraz: Dungeon Dysfunction in the Bay
What the Anne Frank House is for Amsterdam, Alcatraz is for San Francisco. No tourist of the city by the Bay can withstand a visit to this old, deserted and depressing slammer. Now mostly a target and toilet for sea gulls, Alcatraz has been one of the most famous prisons because it was so hard to escape from it: the few souls who reached the water are still missing but it’s safe to assume they died from exposure in the cold, cold water of the San Francisco Bay.
As late as 1775, the Spaniards first spotted the island, mostly consisting of rocks (hence the nickname The Rock, which is also the title of an excellent suspense flick on Alcatraz) and called it Isla de los Acatraces, which means Island of the Pelicans. Because Alcatraz had such a strategic spot in the bay, the island became Fort Alcatraz in 1859 after which it changed into a prison for soldiers (and Indians who opposed the migrants who came flooding into California during and after the Gold Rush). In 1933, this prison was closed to become the prison which you can now visit.
In total, Alcatraz could house 450 prisoners who lived in claustrophobic cells in which you can barely move around. Famous prisoners were Al Capone, George (Machine Gun) Kelly and Robert Stroud (aka the Birdman of Alcatraz). In 1963, Robert Kennedy closed this appalling prison, not because it was such an inhumane place but because it was so costly to transport water to the island.
What can I say?
We all know that Alcatraz is a hit for tourists and that it’s pretty sketch to do the evening tour that comes with all the gruesome sounds of prison life, but I find a visit to this sin bin a freaky reminder of the state of prisons and prison policy in the US. Orange is the New Black may be the next hottest thing on Netflix but in the last World Prison Report of the British government that I saw, the US has the highest number of inmates per capita in the world (701 people for every 100.000 people in the US). The countries that follow the US closely aren’t exactly enlightened places: Russia (605), Belarus (554), Kazakhstan and the list goes on.
No doubt, this is related to the way justice is doled out in this country and the penal system in general but we also know that it has to do with the general lack of rehabilitation for people who have been in prison. Not only is it harder to get out of prison in this country but the chance that you commit another crime once you are out, is much higher in the US than elsewhere.
Plus, we also know that your chances of ending up in prison in this country increase if you are black, male, come from a poor family… or smoke a joint (in some states).
And then we haven’t even talked about the death penalty and all the creepy stuff that might happen to you in prison when you think you are alone in that shower stall…
So apologies, this entry is a total buzz kill but suffice it to say that Alcatraz serves as a reminder that for an enlightened and progressive state like California, prison reform should be an election issue– it burdens our budget and harms the brand we’re so proud of in California. Alcatraz or no Alcatraz.