These men lived here for a long time and they got used to routine and rules. The prisoners got a rulebook when they arrived. If they abided by these it was much better than if they didn’t (the isolation cells were very unpleasant). The two I like:
- #5 ‘You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Anything else that you get is a privilege’ (Every parent should have this handbook)
- #30 ‘Loud talking, shouting, whistling, singing or other unnecessary noises are not permitted.’
They had a music hour when prisoners played any instrument they had – guitars; harmonicas; trombones (one guy played three notes repeatedly for an hour – how annoying would that be?!) – or rattling their tin cups on lieu of any other instrument. They could take out books from their library (which contained 15,000 books – heavy readers read between 75 and 100 books a year), and the most popular titles included the philosophy of Kant, Schopenhauer and Hegel.
They could hear the sounds floating across the harbour from parties at the San Francisco Yacht Club (particularly at New Year); they could see the delights of the town from the exercise yard. It must almost have been an extra torment to ‘look at what you could have won.’ They called the areas of the cell block names such as Seedy Street, Times Square, Broadway, or Michigan Avenue – maybe to be ironic, or to give it a sense of connection to the outside.
Alcatraz was never integrated – Mexicans, Indians, Hispanics and whites were all put together, but blacks were segregated – apparently more for their own protection from the rednecks. Over 1,500 men served time in Alcatraz but in 1963 Kennedy ordered it closed. The mentality had moved from punishment to rehabilitation, but one prisoner who was released was worried that he was too different – he envied others who seemed to have purpose and moved too fast.
Outside the Blue Angels were flying overhead, practicing for an air show at the weekend. They are like the Red Arrows, but blue (obviously) and they’re not part of the Royal Air Force. They were swooping, twisting, flying in formation, buzzing the island and turning on and off their vapour trails. It was impressive stuff and the freedom of flight provided the ultimate contrast to the island incarceration.