September 14, 2011

The Rock

So you can't spend a month in San Francisco and not see Alcatraz. I had the day off yesterday after working a bunch of days in a row (hence the absence of posts), so I decided to take the full day to check out the island. Just a warning, I took a lot of pictures. There is a ton more history to the island than a maximum security prison.. It was a military fortress, a military prison, a site where Native Americans battled for their rights against the government, and a bird sanctuary. All I really cared about, though, was seeing where Sean Connery snuck in through the underground sewer system and where the rogue, crazed ex-marine told Nicholas Cage, "I'd take pleasure in guttin you, boy" in the movie, "The Rock." I was not disappointed (except for the underground sewer system entrance). I took the audio tour (which was fantastic) and explored the main cell blocks for a couple hours. The above picture is the view as you approach the island on the boat. The wind cutting across the bay was about 40 miles per hour and very cold. The currents were equally as strong so I can see how the 1.25 mile swim would be almost impossible. Here is a pic of the first thing the inmates would see when they arrived: the decontamination area. They would be thoroughly washed down and given their inmate outfits and their blanket here.

They would then be walked to their cells where, to their knowledge, they would spend many years alone. They inmates got two showers per week and privacy wasn't exactly a priority in the prison. There were actually partitions between the showers in the early days of the prison but too many inmates were getting stabbed with prison shanks and other unfortunate happenings so the guards removed the partitions for the prisoners' own safety.

This is a picture of the typical cell. It was shockingly tiny. Like 5 feet by 9 feet. I'm not even claustrophobic but I got chills standing inside one of them.

There are several rows of cells, each row being three stories tall. There are more favorable rows/levels based upon the obnoxiousness your neighbors, sunlight, windows with a view, etc. This is the D-block, which was apparently where you went if you were being a jerk. The most well-known criminals housed here were usually in D-block. On this side of cellhouse you could hear the sounds of the city if the winds were blowing the right way. Apparently they could almost always hear music and girls laughing at the Yacht Club's New Years party every year which was right across the bay. Ouch.

If you were really being a butthead, they put you in isolation. Yeah. The longest anybody stayed in here was 14 days straight. Imagine if that door was closed and it was total darkness. A commentary from one inmate said that to prevent from going crazy he would pull a button off his shirt, flick it in the air, turn around 3 times to disorient himself, and then try to find the button in the darkness. Then he would repeat. Yikes. Better behave.

This is a picture of "The Yard" where inmates were allowed to go for a bit if they earned the right. Apparently there were some crazy games of chess and bridge out here. Reminds me of Shawshank....

This is the view of the city across the bay. So close but so far for the inmates.

There were several escape attempts but it's said nobody successfully made it alive. One man actually escaped and survived the swim across, but was so close to death upon making it to the other side the authorities simply picked him up out of the water and took him back. The most famous attempt though, was made into a movie, fittingly named, "Escape from Alcatraz." It was 3 guys (can't remember their names) but they used spoons to dig through the concrete around the air vent in the back of their rooms. They then climbed up pipes in the narrow utility space behind their cells to get to the roof. They got off the roof and made it down to the water where they were never seen again. Some people say they made it and were living in South America (they were learning Spanish before they left), but most people say they drowned in the icy water. This is the pic of one of their cells. They air vent is removed in the back of the cell. They made dummy heads out of soap and concrete to put in their beds to buy more time.

Okay, this is where this story takes a turn. Up to this point I was just minding my own business with my audio tour and informational pamphlet like the hundreds of other tourists. I was reading some stuff about Whitey Bulger at a table about famous inhabitants of Alcatraz when a kindly old security guard walks up and we start chatting. Whitey, fugitive Boston mob boss, was just recently caught in California and this guard was full of interesting information about him. Turns out he was an FBI informant, but was playing both sides- the Boston mob AND the FBI. Like a double agent. The FBI caught on and was going to lock him up for good but the FBI agent directly communicating with Whitey tipped him off and he fled and was on the run for 20 years until several months ago. The FBI agent who tipped him off got like 5 years in the big house.

Anyway, the guard asks me where I'm from and what I'm doing in the city. I tell him I'm here for a month doing a rotation in EM at the General and he goes, "Oh cool, do you want to go upstairs and see the hospital wing?" There is a second floor to the cellhouse that was used as the hospital, pharmacy, OR, dentist office, etc that isn't open to the public because of peeling lead paint. I say absolutely, but isn't it closed to the public? "I have the keys..." he says as he pulls out these HUGE keys from about 1930 and unlocks the bars to the second floor. This guy is awesome. So that's when I got a private tour of the second floor of Alcatraz from a trained tour guide. This was probably the coolest thing I've done this month. These are two pictures of the old OR table from about 1930. The fashion and function of these tables haven't changed a whole lot in 80 years.

This is the "psych" room where they put unstable patients. Nowadays they at least put some padding on the walls to make it a little more comfortable. That is the kindly security guard...

This is the room for "hydrotherapy," which I don't think is an actual thing anymore. He said it was for arthritis, etc. Less well known to the public, he says, is that the guards used to take inmates who were being hostile and agitated, wrap them in a bedsheet, and stick them in this tub that was full of water from the bay (~45 degrees) until the inmate was shivering with hypothermia. Apparently you can't fight guards when you are incapacitated from shivering.

This is the general "medicine" ward of the prison. Really not all that different from the General today. The guard told me that Al Capone contracted syphilis when he was 15 and by they time he was in Alcatraz he had full blown neurosyphilis (when it goes to your brain) and he was completely off his rocker. He couldn't find his way back to his cell a lot of times and ended up spending most of his time in this hospital room.

This was the pharmacy, where the old doctors would make their own medications. A doctor would sign a year contract to work on the island and had to live here for the whole year.

This guard told me another interesting story about the absolute worst inmate during the lifetime of the prison, a man named Robert Stroud aka "The Birdman." He was such a pain in the butt for the guards, he spent almost his entire 17 year stay in a private room on the second floor. He was never allowed to leave and the guards were never allowed to go inside. He got his food through the bars in his door. He apparently spent the 17 years walking around naked and yelling things at the guards fluently in 3 languages. He started his career of crime in his late teens by murdering a family in Alaska. His mother protested to the prison to give him a parole hearing. Even though he was the worst inmate they had, they humored her and gave him one. When asked, "What would you do if released from prison?" he responded: "Oh, that would be great! I have so many more people to kill." Parole denied. This is the view of the city on the boat back in to town. Thank you, Mr. security guard/tour guide/history buff man for a great day on The Rock.

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