It’s called “The Rock,” and its legacy is one of brutality and violence, the result of its history as a fort, military prison and federal penitentiary, but Alcatraz Island also has another, softer face.
The 22 acres of sandstone in the middle of San Francisco Bay has seen both sides of humanity.
Most people know the plug-ugly faces of the gangsters who were sent to the prison. Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly were only two of the hundreds of miscreants who spent portions of their lives on the Rock.
But because the guards and wardens who ran the place often had families, the softer side of humanity planted roses and hung curtains. The result is a rock transformed to a garden alive with wildflowers and birds.
Of course, the birds have always been there. When the Spanish first sighted the rock in the middle of the bay in 1775, the ship’s captain wrote that the island was “so barren and craggy that it could provide no shelter even for small craft” and they named it La Isla de los Alcatraces, or the Island of the Cormorants, for the number of the birds they found there.
The Rock remained uninhabited — essentially uninhabitable — until 1859, when the United States Army decided it was a grand spot for a fort to protect the city. Everything necessary to make the fort function had to be imported. That includes not only food and water and building materials, but even dirt.
The dirt was not brought in to make flower gardens, but to construct breastworks around the fort, protecting gun emplacements from incoming artillery fire.
But by 1892, Alcatraz’s batteries were obsolete and the cushioning dirt was gradually moved to residences to allow officers’ wives to spruce up the place. By World War I, there was a concerted effort by the military “to improve the rock itself so that its own beauty shall be in harmony with that of its surroundings.”
And a newspaper account from 1918 reports, “the visitor who comes here expects to find a barren rock, but as he strolls over it, he is surprised to find roses in bloom, sweet peas, lilies and a large variety of other flowers in all their beauty and fragrance. … In this way, barren wastes are converted into garden spots, and ugliness is transformed into beauty.”
In 1924, the California Spring Blossom and Wildflower Association planted hundreds of trees on the island and spread wildflower seed.
But as a fort, Alcatraz had become entirely obsolete and much too expensive to run. So, in 1933, it was signed over to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was looking for a “superprison” to hold the most incorrigible inmates who caused trouble at other penitentiaries. And in 1934, Alcatraz opened — and shut — its doors for the first time on what became a long line of notorious hard cases.
Some, like the famous “Birdman of Alcatraz,” Robert Stroud, spent as long as six years in “segregation” or solitary confinement in what is called “D Block.” Whitey Philips spent 13 years there.
“It was cold, it was damp,” says former inmate Jim Quillen, in a tour tape offered by the National Park Service. “And the wind used to just blow through there — you could hear it. At night, you could hear it whistling through the windows.”
Cells 9 through 14 were known as “The Hole,” where inmates were often kept in the dark 24 hours a day. Quillen says he dealt with the darkness by an obsessive game he played.
“When I’d go in the Hole, what I used to do was I’d tear a button off my coveralls, I’d flip it up in the air, then I’d turn around in circles, then I’d get down on my hands and knees and I’d hunt for that button. And then when I found the button, I’d stand up and I’d do it again.”
In their tiny cells or behind the walls of the recreation yard, prisoners had only the merest glimpse of the outside world.
You can walk through the prison now as a tourist and step into a cell to imagine what it must have been like. Cold, clammy, dark and hard, surrounded by steel and concrete.
From some cells, you can see out the second-story windows, through bars, into tree branches.
And you can imagine what the inmates heard of wind, birds and people on the outside.
“The yacht club, which was directly across from the island, would always have a big New Year’s party,” Quillen says. “If the wind was blowing from that direction to the Rock, you could actually hear people laughing, you could hear music, you could hear girls laughing, you know. You could hear all the sounds that were coming from the free world.”
The history of Alcatraz is a history of decay and obsolescence. By 1963, the cell house at the top of the Rock was coming apart. Attorney General Robert Kennedy decided it cost too much to repair the prison and he ordered it closed.
It remained abandoned until a group of American Indians occupied it in 1969 and claimed it as Indian land. They remained until 1971.
In 1973, the National Park Service took it over and made it part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
And it is the romance of the gangsters that brings some 750,000 visitors to the island each year.
They can tour the gray cement prison and the dour fort and residences that surround it. A tape-recorded tour lets them hear the words of some of the yeggs who lived there.
But outside the cell house, among the ruins of old houses and barracks, it is the wildflowers that have taken over, turning the rock into a paradise of blackberries, poppies, cypress and roses.
In the history of Alcatraz, no prisoner ever escaped alive. But it is a delicious irony that these flowers, once planted in housewives’ formal gardens, are known botanically as “escapes.”