March 6, 2010

Welcome to Alcatraz, the thoughest Federal prison in America

Everyone has heard about Alcatraz and it has became one of the most touristy place in San Francisco. Getting off the boat after a 15 mn crossing, you feel like you're going back in time. There is an interesting audio tour to visit the jail which takes about an hour.

A bit of history...
1775: The island received its name when Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala charted the San Francisco Bay, and named this tiny speck of land La Isla de los Alcatraces, which translated to "Island of the Pelicans." 

1847: The U.S. Army took notice of "The Rock" and of its strategic value as a military fortification. The new military fortress featured long-range iron cannons and four massive 36,000-pound, 15-inch Rodman guns, which were capable of sinking mammoth hostile ships three miles away.

1861: Considered as an ideal location for holding captives, the island began receiving Civil War prisoners, and in 1898 the Spanish-American war would bring the prison population from a mere twenty-six to over four hundred and fifty.By 1912 a large cell house had been constructed on the island's central crest, and by the late 1920's, the three-story structure was nearly at full capacity.

21 March 1963: Due to the  deterioration of the buildings and high operating costs, the US government decided to close Alcatraz and the last prisoner left the prison. Over the years, about 1576 prisoners stayed in Alcatraz.

Some famous Alcatraz inmates
George Kelly Barnes, better known as "Machine Gun Kelly", was a notorious American criminal during the prohibition. Kelly's nickname came from his favorite weapon, a Thompson submachine gun. His most famous crime was the kidnapping of oil tycoon & businessman Charles Urschel in July 1933 for which he, and his gang, earned $200,000 in ransom. The FBI investigation eventually led to Kelly's arrest in Memphis, Tennessee on September 26, 1933. During his time at Alcatraz he got the nickname "Pop Gun Kelly". This was in reference, according to a former prisoner, to the fact that Kelly was a model prisoner and was nowhere near the tough, brutal gangster his wife made him out to be. He spent 17 years on Alcatraz, working in the prison industries, and was quietly transferred back to Leavenworth in 1951.
Al Capone still remains one of the most notable residents of "the Rock." In a memoir written by Warden James Johnston, he reminisced about the intensity of public interest around Capone's imprisonment, stating that he was continually barraged with questions about "Big Al." Each day newspapers and press flooded his office with phone calls, wanting to know everything from how Capone liked the weather on "the Rock," to what job assignment he was currently holding. He arrived in Alcatraz in August of 1934 after a long history of crimes.During Capone's time on Alcatraz, he made several attempts to con Johnston into allowing him special privileges, but all were denied. Johnston maintained that Capone would not be given any special rights and would have to follow the rules as would any other inmate. He spent 4 ½ years on Alcatraz and held a variety of jobs. Capone's time on Alcatraz was not easy time. He got into a fight with another inmate in the recreation yard and was placed in isolation for eight days. While working in the prison basement, an inmate who was standing in line waiting for a haircut, exchanged words with Capone and stabbed him with a pair of shears. He eventually became symptomatic from syphilis, a disease he had evidently been carrying for years. In 1938, he was transferred to Terminal Island Prison in Southern California to serve out the remainder of his sentence, and was released in November of 1939. Capone died on January 25, 1947, in his Palm Beach Mansion from complications of syphilis. 

Robert Stroud, who was better known to the public as the "Birdman of Alcatraz," was probably the most famous inmate ever to reside on Alcatraz.During his thirty years of imprisonment at Leavenworth, he developed a keen interest in canaries, after finding an injured bird in the recreation yard. Stroud was initially allowed to breed birds and maintain a lab inside two adjoining segregation cells, since it was felt that this activity would provide for productive use of his time. As a result of this privilege, he was able to author two books on canaries and their diseases, having raised nearly 300 birds in his cells, carefully studying their habits and physiology, and he even developed and marketed medicines for various bird ailments. Although it is widely debated whether the remedies he developed were effective, Stroud was able to make scientific observations that would later benefit research on the canary species. However, after several years of Stroud's informal research, prison officials discovered that some of the equipment he had requested was actually being used to construct a still to make an alcoholic brew.In 1942 he was transferred to Alcatraz, where he spent the next seventeen years - six years in segregation in D Block, and eleven years in the prison hospital. In 1959 he was transferred to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, and there on November 21, 1963, he was found dead from natural causes.

Some famous escape attempts
The battle of Alcatraz - May 1946
A bank robber from Kentucky named Bernard Paul Coy devised a forceful escape strategy with five accomplices. Coy had carefully studied the habits of various guards over a period of several months. Then on May 2, 1946, aided by accomplice Joseph Cretzer, Coy smeared axle grease over his chest, head, and extremities, and started climbing the West End Gun Gallery from the juncture at Times Square and Michigan Avenue. Climbing hand over hand, he scaled the barred cage until he reached the top.

Using a small wrench, he was able to exert enough force to effectively spread the bars and create an opening nearly ten inches in width,.and painfully squeezed his body through the opening. He made his entrance into the West Gun Gallery.As the unsuspecting guard passed through the doorway, Coy forcefully hurled the steel door forward, throwing the officer off balance, and brutally clubbed him, forcing him to the floor. He then strangled him into unconsciousness with his necktie. Working swiftly, Coy lowered firearms and riot clubs to his partners below, and searched for keys that would provide access to the recreation yard.

The convicts were now fully armed, and were able to capture nine unarmed guards and lock them into cells #404 and #403, located at the juncture of Seedy Street and Times Square. But their escape plan soon began to crumble, as they were unable to locate the key that would unlock the door leading to the recreation yard. The key had been concealed by a brave correctional officer named Miller, who had surrendered all of his keys to the convicts except the most critical one. Miller had been able to quietly hide the key in the toilet of the cell where he and the other correctional officers were being held hostage.

Meanwhile, Coy & Cretzer had released three other accomplices from their cells. Clarence Carnes (the youngest convict ever sent to Alcatraz), Sam Shockley, and Miran Thompson were all serving sentences for violent crimes. When the breakout was discovered the distress sirens of Alcatraz wailed, indicating grave trouble at the prison, and the sound could easily be heard from the shores of San Francisco. The Coast Guard and the Marines were mobilized to furnish the support of demolition and weapon experts, and all the off-duty correctional officers were brought in to help take back the cell house from the armed and desperate convicts.

Inside the cell block, a battle was raging. The escapees, realizing that they were unable to gain access to the recreation yard, had become desperate. In a violent rage, and cheered on by inmates Shockley and Thompson, Joseph Cretzer took his revolver, and leaning against the bars of cell #403, started unloading rounds into the cramped cell. Officers fell in the hail of gunfire, some critically wounded.

Back at the Administration Office the Warden had called together his lieutenants, and they had formulated a plan to send in strike teams to rescue the guards who were being held captive. Harold Stites was one member of Bergen's team who courageously returned fire, attempting to suppress the convicts' barrage. As Bergen provided medical care to the downed officer, Stites continued to spray rifle fire into the cell house. Then suddenly Stites was struck by a bullet, and yelled out that he'd been hit. Stites would be the first casualty of the "Battle of Alcatraz." The other officers were quickly transported by boat back to the mainland, to be taken by ambulance to a local hospital.

At a little after 10:00 p.m., the Associate Warden took a group of fourteen officers and burst into the cell house, hoping to rescue their colleagues. The team fell under heavy gunfire from the inmates who had positioned themselves on top of C Block. The escapees realized that their chances of escape were fading, and Shockley and Thompson retreated back to their cells to contemplate how to explain their involvement in the plan.

Not knowing the origin of the barrage of gunfire, the marines started bombing D Block with explosives as the cell block filled with dense smoke. Coy, Cretzer, and Hubbard retreated in the utility corridor as the bombing continued. The Marines drilled holes in the ceilings, lowering hand grenades attached to wire and then detonating them. The barrage of gunfire, mortars, and teargas was ceaseless. Water from the broken plumbing started flowing from the tiers and flooding D Block.

After nearly 48 hours of battle, the gunfire ceased. In the violent aftermath, Cretzer, Coy, and Hubbard were killed in the corridor from bullet wounds and shrapnel. The mastermind Coy, was found dead wearing a guard uniform. One officer, William Miller, died from his injuries. A second officer, Harold Stites, was shot and killed during an attempt to regain control of the cell house. Thompson and Shockley were later executed together in the Gas Chamber at San Quentin for their role in the murder of Officer Miller, and Carnes received an additional 99-year sentence.

It would take months before the cell blocks returned to any normalcy and the scars on the cement and cell walls would remain strong reminders until the closure of the prison of the consequences of attempted escape.

The Great Escape - 11 June 1962
Frank Lee Morris had spent a lifetime navigating the prison system before his arrival on Alcatraz. Morris was credited by prison officials as possessing superior intelligence, and he earned his ticket to Alcatraz by building an impressive resume of escapes. In 1960, Federal officials decided that his pattern of escape attempts, termed as "shotgun freedom" (although his escapes had never involved the use of a shotgun), would end at The Rock. On January 20, 1960, Morris disembarked from the prison launch and became inmate #AZ-1441.

Frank's accomplices in the "Great Escape" were equally well acquainted with the dark world of organized crime. Brothers John and Clarence Anglin were also serving sentences at Alcatraz for bank robbery, having been convicted along with their brother Alfred. All three had been incarcerated at the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta when they first became acquainted with Morris, and John and Clarence were eventually sent to Alcatraz following a sequence of attempted escapes.

Alcatraz inmate Allen West, who occupied an adjacent cell, was also brought in on the scheme. He was serving his second term on The Rock and carried a reputation as an arrogant criminal, and he knew John Anglin from the State Penitentiary in Florida.

The plan was extremely complex and involved the design and fabrication of ingenious lifelike dummies, water rafts, and life preservers, fashioned from over fifty rain coats that had been acquired from other inmates - some donated and some stolen. They would also require a variety of crudely made tools to dig with, and to construct the accessories necessary for the escape. By May of 1962, Morris and the Anglins and had already dug through the cell's six-by-nine-inch vent holes, and had started work on the vent on top of the cellblock.
The inmates alternated shifts, with one working and one on lookout. They would start work at 5:30 p.m. and continue till about 9:00 p.m., just prior to the lights-out count. Meanwhile John and Clarence started fabricating the dummy heads, and even gave them the pet names of "Oink" and "Oscar." The heads were crude but lifelike, and were constructed from a homemade cement-powder mixture that included such innocuous materials as soap and toilet paper. They were decorated with flesh-tone paint from prison art kits, and human hair from the barbershop.

Using glue stolen from the glove shop, the inmates also started working to cut and bond the raincoats into a makeshift raft and life preservers. Each evening following the completion of their self-imposed work detail, they would hide the materials on top of the cellblock to minimize any chance of being caught with the contraband materials. The inmates also acquired an elaborate array of handmade tools.

After months of long preparation the inmates had completed fashioning all of the gear they needed for their escape, and they then continued working to loosen the ventilator grill on top of the cellhouse. John Anglin carefully completed the valve assembly on a large six-by-fourteen-foot raft, while Morris modified an accordion-like musical instrument called a concertina, which would be used to rapidly inflate the raft. But while the others had progressed well in their various preparations, West had fallen behind in digging out the ventilator grill at the rear of his cell. His primary role had been to construct the life preservers and special wooden paddles for the raft, tasks which didn't require him to leave his cell. On the night of June 11, 1962, Morris indicated that the top ventilator was loose enough, and that he felt that they were ready to attempt the escape.
At 9:30 p.m., immediately after lights-out, Morris brought down the dummies from the top of the cellblock and announced that the escape would be staged that very night. Clarence Anglin attempted to assist West in removing his ventilator grill by kicking at it from outside of the cell in the utility corridor, but his efforts were unsuccessful. Morris and the Anglins would have no choice but to leave him behind. The inmates made their final thirty-foot climb up the plumbing to the cellhouse roof, traversed 100 feet across the rooftop, and then carefully maneuvered down fifty feet of piping to the ground near the entrance to the shower area. This would be the last anyone ever saw of Morris and the Anglin Brothers.

In a later interview, West said that their plan had been to use their raft to make their way to Angel Island. After resting, they would then reenter the Bay on the opposite side of the island and swim through a waterway called Raccoon Straits, then on into Marin. They would steal a car, burglarize a clothing store, and then venture out in their own separate directions. West had finally been able to complete the removal of his grill and climb to the rooftop, but by then all of the other inmates had disappeared. With no raft or other means of escape, he was forced to return to his cell.
 For decades speculated abounded as to whether this famous escape attempt had been successful. The FBI spent several years investigating, and later resolved that the inmates' plan had failed.

Now some pictures...
welcome to Alcatraz!

A typical cell
The Hole for the bad inmates

View on San Francisco

You can see the hole through they escaped in 1962

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