Home » Justice » Correctional System » Alcatraz. . . And All that Jazz

Alcatraz. . . And All that Jazz


It was a unique vacation many years ago – in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s.  This was a much anticipated trip by bus throughout selected areas of California, including the infamous Alcatraz Island that held a special significance for this blogger.  Career criminal Perry Lee Herring was behind bars for the murder of my father and another perpetrator, an accomplice in a bank robbery.  I imagined that the harsh conditions of Alcatraz might be the same as what Herring was experiencing in Connecticut. (Naught!)

This was also a special trip as it was an adventure of sorts – staying at a quaint gay owned hotel at the foot of Chinatown… and the opportunity to explore San Francisco and the California wine country… to connect with “my people of orientation,” if I could find them.

As for “my people,” I found but one smokey, not so nice women’s bar.  Even the Women’s Center in the Castro appeared to be underground… but that’s a chapter for another time.  Disillusionment….  This was a man’s town it seemed.

Anyway, some of the details of that trip are fuzzy after all of the intervening years.  However, this fact stands out while on my way to tour Alcatraz Island, I KID YOU NOT…. I WAS ROBBED (i.e. my cash was stolen) while on Alcatraz!  How could it be? Where were the cops?  Where was Burt Lancaster (the Birdman) when I needed them?

I was at the snack bar prior to the tour to buy a drink on this swelteringly hot day.  I laid my change purse with $50.00 cash on the counter for what seemed like just a few seconds.  (The rest was located elsewhere in traveler’s checks).  As I was organizing myself, I took my eyes off the counter and …. GONE!

I immediately reported it and the Ferry police (with their big hats similar to mounted police).  They radioed to the mainland and conducted their search/investigation, interviewing people, filling out documents etc.

I suspected the counter person as a likely suspect or another tourist who made off with my cash and quickly headed back to the ferry.  Results…. NADA!   What a way to begin a vacation!!!  But, I, ladyjustice, was not deterred.  Having gotten the “bad luck” out of the way, I was now on my way  to a fascinating adventure to re-live how crime was dealt with going back to the days of the Civil War in the 1880’s until Alcatraz’s closing in 1963.

One of the many times in which Alcatraz received national attention included  when it was temporarily occupied as part of a Native American Civil Rights Movement that spanned from 1969 to 1971 when Federal agents “removed them” in 1971.

Personally, I would love to see my father’s killer “dropped off” without any life necessities to live out the rest of his miserable life as a lone survivor  (as in the TV show).  Next, I would “drop off all of the sexual predators that could possibly fit on the island.  SAYONARA, BABY!

Back to “The Rock”….

When one tours Alcatraz as a typical tourist, you are given a headset and walkman recorder (perhaps they are digital now) and the story is recounted as you walk the various cell blocks, mess hall etc. and provided with a series of frequently asked questions and answers.

As I toured, I was struck by the absolute desolation and degradation of everyday life.  Today’s prisons, in comparison are country clubs by any measurable standard, no doubt about it!  (Bloggers, I refer you to my previous blog called Prison Programming, Is it a Panacea?) What a dramatic contrast!!

According to the website www.alcatrazhistory.com, the daily routine at Alcatraz was vey mundane – nothing interesting unless you think prisoners waiting several times a day for guards to count and verify people and pieces of silverware…

True interest as a tourist attraction lies in Alcatraz’s age, history of the prison itself, the site of the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast and other features such as seabird colonies and remnants of early military fortifications.

As per http://www.islandsinfo.com and the previous source, here are some

FUN FACTS” about Life on Alcatraz

1)    12 Acre Island maintained by the National Park service;

2)    Began as a Military Reservation in 1850 and was transformed into a Federal Penitentiary in 1934;

3)    Famous Movies Filmed on Alcatraz include: “Murder in the First”-1995; “The Rock”-1996; “Star Wars-The Emperor Strikes Back”-1980 and “Escape from Alcatraz”- 1979;

4)    Average length of stay at “Hotel Alcatraz” – 8 years

*** Tourist average length of stay (Unless you are robbed) 2-3 hours;

5)    Highest capacity of prisoners– 302;

6)    Typical Cell Accommodations – 336 cells in total; 5 feet X 9 feet;

Small sink, toilet and a cot;

7)    Most Common Complaints by Inmates:

“Rule of Silence” (i.e. speaking allowed only during meals and recreation – abolished in 1930);

Constant cold temperatures

8)    Number of Inmate Deaths on the Rock

8- Murdered;

5- Suicide;

15- Natural Illness

(This blogger wonders….. Do those parents who inflict domestic violence in California tell their children… “You had better be good, or we’ll put you on Alcatraz???”  I sure hope not…)

9)    Escape Attempts

36 men attempted involved in 14 separate incidents;

23 were caught;

6 were shot and killed;

2 drowned

No, sorry, make that 37 attempted escapes including Donna Gore… Whew!

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