Alcatraz, California, December26, 2022

Alcatraz, California, December 26, 2022

On December 26, 2022, I traveled with my family on a tour of Alcatraz.  This was not my first visit as I had visited many years ago, and to be honest, I do not recall too much detail from that initial visit.  I found this experience to be very emotional. I decided to not include this Alcatraz detail in my other blog about our travel adventures to California over the Christmas 2022 and New Year 2023 experiences

 

Alcatraz deserves this, its own special focused report.  The bottom line: if you get an opportunity to visit Alcatraz, please do go.  It is well worth your time to learn all about this unique place in America. 

 

Alcatraz reveals stories of American incarceration, justice, and our common humanity. This small island was once a fort, a military prison, and a maximum-security federal penitentiary. In 1969, the Native American Indians of All Tribes occupied Alcatraz for 19 months in the name of freedom and their civil rights.

 

The 19-month protest from 1969 to 1971 became the longest occupation of Federal land in US history and is credited with launching a national American Indian civil rights movement.  When the National Parks Service (NPS) restored the water tower in 2012, original occupiers and family members were invited to repaint the historic message.  The NPS continues to work with the occupiers to restore their inscriptions around the island.

 

We woke December 26, 2022, Boxing Day, to a cloudy cool day with plans to visit Alcatraz.  We drove to a parking lot at the Fisherman’s Wharf near Pier 27 in San Francisco.  It was a 40-minute drive in heavy traffic from Moraga. With nine of us in two cars, we were waiting for the rest of our family to join us, mainly because parking was extremely scarce in this lot.  We were standing alongside cars parked near the main road and saw a one-in-a-million incident. 

A car stopped in the road, and two guys hopped out of the car, each wearing a balaclava to help hide their identity.  They peered into a parked car in front of us with Florida license plates, did not see anything worth stealing, and hopped back into their waiting vehicle and took off. 

 

A few minutes later we saw two vehicles parked alongside each other in this same parking lot that had their windows smashed.  I was surprised because the one vehicle had two suitcases in the back seat, and for some reason were still in place. 

 

We spoke to a car guard who said that he called 911, the Universal Emergency Number, to get immediate police action.  They brush him off and tell him to call the local police station.  He follows their recommendation, but the police show no interest in this crime.  The car guard said that this smash-and-grab is a daily occurrence.  We asked why he does not report the license plate of the criminal’s vehicle and said that most often they are stolen vehicles or fake plates on the vehicles.

 

The parking lot has a warning sign at the entrance to the car park stating that it is wise not to have any valuables clearly visible from outside the vehicle.

 

There were two issues at Alcatraz that tugged at my heartstrings.  The first, experienced at the end of the tour, were statistics about incarceration rates in the United States, especially among the “minority (Black, American Indian, and Asian) community.”  Second, after my extensive research into several of the inmates, I was puzzled as to why I was so fortunate to have escaped illegal activities during my lifetime.  In a few weeks I will be 77 years of age, and why or how did I live such a charmed crime-free life?

 

On our way out of the prison building they had a display to highlight the injustice of incarceration in the U.S., I was amazed by statistics regarding the U. S. prison population and frankly decided that this was important enough to highlight the situation as you will read later.

We took the boat from Pier 33 on the Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco for the 15-minute cruise to the island.  We were nine of the 1.5 million to visit the island each year. 

Alcatraz is a small island 1.25 miles (2.01 kilometers) offshore from San Francisco, California.  The boat trip takes 12 to 15 minutes one way to reach the island from the mainland.  Alcatraz is 22 acres (9 hectares) in size with an elevation of 135 feet (41 meters).

Tour Narrators: Correctional Officers.

  • Officer Patric Mahoney on Alcatraz 1956 – 1963
  • Captain Philip Bergen on Alcatraz 1939 – 1955
  • Officer George De Vincenzi on Alcatraz 1950 – 1957
  • Officer Ron Battles on Alcatraz 1958 – 1962

We did not avail ourselves of available narrations.

Tour Narrators: Inmates.

  • Leon “Whitey” Thompson AZ 1465 Weapons on Alcatraz 1960—1962
  • John Banner AZ 1133 Bank Robbery on Alcatraz 1954—1958
  • James Quillen AZ 586 Kidnapping on Alcatraz 1942—1952
  • Darwin Coon AZ 1422 Bank Robbery on Alcatraz 1959—1963

We did not avail ourselves of available narrations.

Alcatraz Island

Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala y Aranza discovered Alcatraz when he sailed into San Francisco Bay on August 5, 1775, staying in the bay on nearby Angel Island until September 18th.  Alcatraz comes from the Spanish word meaning “sea eagle.”  He named what is now nearby Yerba Buena Island “the island of pelicans.”

Between 1859 and 1933 Alcatraz was a Military Prison, and from 1934 to 1963 a Federal Penitentiary.  The US army first established a fort on the barren turtle-shaped island in 1853. Although the army occupied Alcatraz for approximately 80 years, its role in the protection of the Golden Gate is not what gained the 22-acre island’s recognition.  In 1859 little attention was paid to the eleven military prisoners who accompanied the first Garrison. Those eleven men were placed in a dungeon-like room that was accessed with a ladder through a hatch on the first floor of the guardhouse/sallyport (located near the dock). From this small beginning the role of the island as a place of imprisonment grew rapidly.

 

Between April 27, 1936, and December 16, 1962, fourteen attempts to escape Alcatraz prison were made.  Only two attempts were successful.

 

Prohibition, the Great Depression, and the general social chaos of the 1920s and ‘30s contributed to the rise of the “gangster era” in America.  Alcatraz was to be both a place and a symbol of the government’s determination to control criminals and deter crime. When Alcatraz was reopened in 1934 as a federal penitentiary, it was the most restrictive in the Bureau of Prisons system.

In 1894, when Alcatraz was still operating as a military prison, the U.S. government arrested 19 Hopi men for refusing to send their children to American assimilation boarding schools almost 1,000 miles away from their reservation in Oraibi, Arizona.

 

From the late 19th century well into the 20th, the federal government, following a policy of “save the man, kill the Indian,” mandated that indigenous families ship their children to distant boarding schools designed to erase their cultural and spiritual heritage. To “Americanize” the youngsters, officials cut their hair, dressed them in Anglo clothing, gave them American names, and forbade them to speak their native tongues or practice their faiths. Children were often forced into labor, mistreated, and abused.

 

To assure compliance in native communities, the government used bribery, coercion, and force. One tactic was to install agents to report noncooperative parents. The 19 Hopi men arrested for refusing to give up their children spent a year at Alcatraz in squalid conditions, in part to send a message to others about non-compliance.

 

News outlets at the time sided with the government, leaning into racial stereotypes, and downplaying the Hopi men’s ordeal. One San Francisco paper called them murderers and “crafty redskins” who refused the “civilized ways of the white men.” Another described their days as leisurely and likened their meals to “any ordinary second-class hotel.” Adding insult to injury, when the Hopi were released, officials told them they wouldn’t need to send their children to the assimilation schools—a bargain the government reneged on.

American Indian Occupation

1969 to 1971

 

So, what ended it all?  Island of Incarceration, Island of Freedom. Alcatraz reveals stories of American incarceration, justice, and our common humanity. This small island was once a fort, a military prison, and a maximum-security federal penitentiary.

 

In 1969, six years after the penitentiary closed, a group of American Indians claimed Alcatraz as “Indians of All Tribes.”  For almost 19 months they occupied the island to call attention to the plight of Native Americans and make a stand for native peoples’ fundamental right to their cultural identities.

 

The occupiers hoped to establish several institutions on Alcatraz.  Their vision included a center for American Indian Studies, a job training school, a spiritual center, an ecology center, and a museum.

 

The occupiers did not achieve their goals for Alcatraz.  However, the island’s occupation was a turning point for American Indians across the country.  Public sympathy generated by the occupation played a key role in ending the U.S. government’s policy of determining tribal governments and relocating Indians from their reservation lands and communities.  The government adopted a new official policy recognizing tribal self-rule and protecting Indian lands, languages, culture, and identity.

Alcatraz Lighthouse

The lighthouse—the first built on the U.S. West Coast. It is located at the southern end of the island near the entrance to the prison. The first lighthouse on the island was completed in 1854 and served the bay during its time as a Citadel and military prison. It was replaced by a taller concrete tower 95 feet (29 meters) above mean sea level built in 1909 to the south of the original one which was demolished after it was damaged due to an earthquake in 1906. The automation of the lighthouse with a modern beacon took place in 1963, the year Alcatraz closed as the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary.

Wildlife Habitat

Though Alcatraz is famous for housing prisoners, birds have been the island’s principal residents for much longer.  They were here before Spanish explorers sailed into the bay in 1755, and large populations were present when the American military garrisoned Alcatraz in 1859 and, over time, development drove them away.  Since the penitentiary closed in 1963, birds have gradually reclaimed the island.

Today, protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, cormorants, gulls, herons, egrets, and many more species nest among the remnants of the prison and in the island’s lush vegetation.  This is a thriving ecosystem.

While marine birds are Alcatraz’s predominant wildlife, other birds and creatures are at home here, too.  Watch for deer mice, salamanders, and banana slugs.

Alcatraz Water Tower.

When the US military transferred Alcatraz to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in 1934, the BOP signed a contract to provide laundry service for Bay Area army bases.  With no fresh water source on the island, large volumes of water were transported for drinking, fire suppression, and the prison laundry.  Installed in 1940, the water tower stored the 250,000 gallons (950,000 liters) of fresh water brought by boat twice weekly.  Today the island uses approximately 1,500 gallons of water a day that is stored in a nearby cistern. 

 

The Alcatraz water tower is one of the most visible landmarks in San Francisco Bay.  As such, it was the ideal place for American Indians who occupied the island to broadcast their message of “peace and freedom” to the world.  Standing on each other’s shoulders to paint the letters, they staked claim to the island.

Alcatraz Gardens

Imagine Alcatraz as a baren rock.  That’s what the island was until the 1860s when the first residents planted gardens in pockets of imported soil.  Sent to live on the cold, gray island, Army families took refuge in Victorian-style flower gardens around the citadel.

 

Prisoners also gardened.  Army prison crews, and later, a few closely watched penitentiary inmates, created a manicured landscape that bloomed until the prison closed in 1963.  The flowering terraces, rose beds, and lawns then grew wild for 40 years.  Luckily, hundreds of garden species brought to the island by a century of gardeners managed to survive and even thrive.

 

In 2003, the Garden Conservancy, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and the National Park Service began a joint effort to preserve and restore historic gardens.

Staff Housing

Growing up in Alcatraz

Once upon a time, boys and girls rode bikes and ran after balls on the cement.  They did the normal things kids do, while their fathers guarded the nation’s most incorrigible criminals and their mothers made homes of their Alcatraz apartments.

 

When the whistle blew for the boat each morning, the children headed to school on the mainland.  Each afternoon they came home to the island, where they played games outside with the other children.

Military Parade Ground

Reshaping the island

 

Between 1873 and 1876, military prisoners cut into the island’s gently sloping southern tip and created the plateau.  We now call the slab the “Parade Ground.”  The leveled area was used for a variety of purposes over the years: gun batteries, a military drill field, temporary cell houses for the fort’s growing prison population, and even a playground for the children who lived on Alcatraz.

Warden’s House

Alcatraz’s Executive Mansion

 

For many years, Alcatraz’s most potent resident lived in a Victorian cottage on Officer’s Row.  That changed in 1921 when this 15-room mansion was completed.  Built on the island’s summit to command respect, this was the official residence of the military prison’s commandant until Alcatraz opened as a federal penitentiary in 1934.

 

From 1934 to 1963 each of the penitentiary’s four wardens lived there, just steps from his private entrance to the cell house.

 

The warden’s house burned in a 1970 fire, which also destroyed other buildings on the island.

Officers’ Row.

Home to the military elite.

 

Alcatraz’s commanding officers and their families lived in cottages built in 1880 and were countered among the Bay Area’s most important citizens.  They hosted parties, concerts, and other events on the island and attended fashionable affairs in San Francisco.  After their homes were demolished in 1941, residents and inmates created gardens in the building foundations.

 

Making a comfortable and efficient home on the island was not easy for the wives of men posted at the fort. Grocery shopping, for example, had to be planned around the boat schedule.  Once back from the mainland, the woman had to carry all purchases from the dock, which discouraged them from buying household necessities in large quantities.

 

“Life continued for the children much as it would have on any army post…there were hide-and-seek games among abandoned fortifications.  Alcatraz’s steep sidewalks made for excellent roller skating, and after the convicts paved the roads with concrete, the children attained blood-chilling speeds going down the switchback roadway.” John Martini, Alcatraz historian, in Fortress Alcatraz. 

The Morgue

Death on the Rock

 

Although death on the island was seldom, both the U.S. military and the Federal Bureau of Prisons had to deal with the inescapable reality of death at Alcatraz.

 

In 1910, the military constructed a morgue to store the bodies of the deceased. Built at the entrance to a Civil War-era tunnel, the thick, brick-lined walls that once kept gunpowder cool and dry became ideal for holding bodies before transport off the island. 

 

Who is buried here?

The Military called this island “the Rock” for a reason; it is composed entirely of hard graywacke sandstone which does not lend itself to burials.  During the military era, soldiers who died here were buried on Angle Island or in the National Cemetery at the Presidio of San Francisco.  Later, during the Bureau of Prison years, deceased inmates were taken to the city morgue in San Francisco.  If unclaimed, they were interred in the paupers’ graves in a local cemetery.

Recreation Yard

In a prison of strict regimentation, the yard offered rare freedom of movement, association, and choice.  Some inmates chose to play baseball or run laps.  Others simply walked to the top of the bleachers and looked out at what they were missing.

 

General population inmates visited the yard on Saturdays and Sundays, for 2 ½ hours each day.  Treatment Unit inmates got one hour a week, usually alone.

Isolation

D Block — “the Treatment Unit” — was reserved for unusually dangerous or violent inmates.  Men received adequate food and health care but were confined to their cells 24 hours a day.  A stretch in D Block could last a few days or several years, depending on the offense.

 

The six closed-front cells were used for the most severe disciplinary problems.  Treatment in “the Hole” sometimes included total darkness and a restricted diet.  It usually lasted several days, but never more than 19.  Few inmates ever saw the inside of “the Hole.”

 

“He’d go to the Hole.  That was my club.” Former Correctional Officer 1959 — 1963.

Lower Military Prison

During the Civil War, Confederate sympathizers, political prisoners, deserters, and other army convicts were sent to Alcatraz. This marked the beginning of the island’s evolution from the fort to prison. After the war ended, the post was pressed to take an increasing number of military prisoners, forcing the construction of temporary cell houses and other facilities. A cluster of structures alongside this road was called the “Lower prison.” After the army officials renamed Alcatraz “Pacific Branch Military Prison” in 1907, most of the makeshift buildings were demolished and work began on the cell house that stands on the island’s summit today.

Search

Inmates arrived out on “The Rock” handcuffed and shackled: some defiant, some resigned. Upon entering the Cellhouse, these “fresh fish” submitted to a thorough search for contraband such as weapons and narcotics.

Shower

Prisoners knew no privacy on Alcatraz – here or anywhere else. The forty showers originally had stalls, but they were removed in the 1950s to allow guards to oversee inmates and protect them from assault. Inmates would shower two times a week.

Clothing Issue

After showering, inmates collected their prison-issue clothing from the caged area. Once dressed in “Alcatraz Blues,” convicts marched into the general population cells on the floor above.

Flank Defense Howitzer

Mighty and far-reaching firepower. In 1866, Alcatraz’s sole role was to protect San Francisco and the army had emplaced 111 cannons along the island’s perimeter. The fort’s Rodman guns could shoot 440-pound cannonballs three miles. The smallest artillery guns, howitzers, were loaded with canisters of small balls. Had hostile troops stormed up from the dock, the guardhouse howitzers would have torn them to pieces.

U.S. Penitentiary Library/The Prison Library

Because they were physically confined, most prisoners sought mental escape through books.  Literate convicts read 75 — hundred books a year.  The 15,000 volumes in the library include philosophy, fiction, and educational material.  Books with sexual, violent, or criminal references were not allowed.

 

Convicts were barred from the library, so a prison orderly delivered books.  Despite these precautions. Bernie Coy used his library job to organize the deadly 1946 escape. 

 

“…these men read more serious literature than does the ordinary person in the community.  Philosophers such as Kant, Schopenhauer, Hegel, etc., are especially popular…”  Federal Bureau of Prisons Booklet, 1960.

Escape from Alcatraz: June 11, 1962

Using the unlikeliest of supplies, Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin made the most creative escape attempt in the history of Alcatraz.

 

Placing dummy heads made of soap, cement, and paint under their blankets in the middle of the night, the escapees crawled out of their cells through the small vents, scaled the utility corridor to the roof, slid down a stove pipe, and crept to the shoreline.

 

The three men had reached the bay.  As they slipped into the water—using a raft fashioned out of a raincoat—they met an icy current rapidly ebbing out to sea.  They were never seen again.

 

“Loss of spoon at noon mainlines.  Some doubt and no trace.”

Meals

Inmates were served three meals a day.  The men thought the food was the best in the Federal prison system, and there was plenty of it.

 

Tear gas canisters were mounted in the ceiling in case of trouble.  They were never used.

 

Take all that you wish — eat all that you take.”  Institution Rules & Regulations, 1956.

 

Menu: 21 March 1963

  • Assorted dry cereals.
  • Steamed Wheat
  • 1 Scrambled egg
  • 2 Fresh milk
  • Stewed fruit
  • Toast
  • Bread
  • Butter
  • Coffee

 

Returning to the emotion I felt visiting Alcatraz and subsequent research, I should share my daily ritual.  At Noon on weekdays, at home in New Berlin, Wisconsin, I watch our local 30-minute TV news updates.  News items 1, 2, and 3, all breaking news, cover who got shot in the Milwaukee area.  They may vary it with who chased through a red traffic light resulting in killing innocent people in one or both vehicles.  If that is not bad enough, I am currently reading a book about the way people were treated in the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps that led to six million Jews being killed. 

 

What is wrong with humanity that we cannot accept others as they are and learn to live in peace with one another?

 

 

Crime does not end here.  Alcatraz was a penitentiary until 1963, the year I graduated high school.  As of today, February 18, 2023, there have been 73 mass shootings in America, resulting in 5,667 deaths, including 2,433 suicides.  It is a fact that guns will never be controlled or taken away from people as they did in Australia.  In America, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has the politicians in their pockets siting the second amendment to the Constitution of the United States, ratified on December 15, 1791, in the Bill of Rights.

 

“A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” When the amendment was written, the situation in our country was vastly different.  The United States did not have a military or police force. 

 

Today we have 484,416 army active duty, 343,223 navy active duty, 337,525 army national guard, 184,358 army reserve, 179,378 marine corps active duty, 108,483 air national guard, 70,570 air force reserve, 57,632 navy reserve, 35,240 marine corps reserve, 1,643 space force active duty and, 67,441 military police officers.

 

Add to that in 2021, there were 660,288 full-time law enforcement officers employed in the United States.  The carnage challenge could be managed if we follow Australia’s response to mass gun violence. 

 

There are approximately 393 million firearms in America with a population of 334 million. Americans are outnumbered by our own instruments of death.

 

Between October 1996 and September 1997, Australia responded to its own gun violence problem with a solution that was both straightforward and severe: It collected roughly 650,000 privately held guns. It was one of the largest mandatory gun buyback programs in recent history.

 

(Updated February 6, 2023).  By his own acknowledgment, Rep. Andrew S. Clyde (R-Ga.) has been handing out lapel pins shaped like assault rifles to fellow GOP lawmakers — an exercise that comes in the wake of a spate of mass shootings and during a week intended to honor survivors of gun violence. Late Thursday, Clyde, who owns a gun store, tweeted a video about his efforts. “I hear that this little pin that I’ve been giving out on the House floor has been triggering some of my Democratic colleagues,” he said in the video. “Well, I give it out to remind people of the Second Amendment of the Constitution and how important it is in preserving our liberties.” Clyde closed by sharing that there are plenty of pins available for those who want to come by his office. The assault-rifle pins have angered Democrats, who began noticing them in recent days before they knew of their origin. On Wednesday, Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.) posted images of two GOP members of Congress — Reps. Anna Paulina Luna (Fla.) and George Santos (N.Y.) — are sporting assault rifle pins on their lapels. Gomez also noted that Paulina Luna was wearing such a pin less than 48 hours after a mass shooting in her state wounded 11 people. Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) pointed out that GOP lawmakers were wearing lapel pins during National Gun Violence Survivors Week.

 

Alcatraz Island is home to many things—migrating birds, a museum, an art gallery, and gardens. It’s also home to the known and unknown stories of 1,567 incarcerated people.

Famous Inmates

The Big Lockup.  Incarceration in the United States

Ellsworth Raymond “Bumpy” Johnson

October 31, 1905 – July 7, 1968, age 62

Alcatraz: 1954—1963

Bumpy Johnson was one of Harlem’s most notorious crime bosses of the 20th century.  Ellsworth Raymond “Bumpy” Johnson was born on October 31, 1905, in Charleston, South Carolina. He was given the nickname “Bumpy” due to an abnormal growth on his head.

 

Johnson spent his earliest years in segregated Charleston, South Carolina.  When Johnson was 10, his older brother was accused of killing a white man.  Fearing the possibility of a racially motivated lynching, his parents mortgaged their home to raise money to send his brother up north to live with relatives.  At 13, Bumpy was sent to New York for better education, and he graduated high school and attended college for a short period.

 

Johnson was smart, fearless, complex and prone to violence.  He got involved with organized crime in Harlem and became a notorious crime boss.  He was arrested over 40 times, spending more than a quarter of his life in prison.  Early in his prison time, Johnson spent three years in solitary confinement due to his violent temper.

 

He was both feared and loved in Harlem, taking money from some and giving it away to others in need.  When he was released from Alcatraz in 1963, locals in Harlem threw him a parade.

 

Johnson came to Alcatraz in 1952, at the height of his reign as the so-called “Godfather of Harlem,” after he was sentenced to a 15-year stint for a drug conspiracy conviction. Johnson served most of that sentence at Alcatraz, before being released on parole in 1963. He later claimed that before he left, Bumpy Johnson played a little-known role in one of Alcatraz’s most famous escape attempts.

 

Though his account remains officially unconfirmed, Clarence Carnes, a notorious Alcatraz inmate in his own right, claimed in interviews that Bumpy helped the Anglin Brothers during their infamous 1962 escape, providing the boat the brothers used along with Frank Morris to escape the island. The escapees’ fates remain unknown.

The Big Lockup.  Incarceration in the United States

James John “Jim” Quillen

Born 16 September 1919 in San Francisco, and died 6 October 1998 (age 79) in Vacaville, California

Alcatraz: 1942—1952

After a wild crime spree of robbery and kidnapping in 1942, escaped San Quentin prisoner Jim Quillen was sentenced to 45 years at the age of 21 and sent to Alcatraz in Aug. 28, 1942, where he became prisoner #586.

 

He spent 10 years at Alcatraz from 1942 to 1952.  During his incarceration, he reformed himself, becoming a model prisoner.  He earned a high school diploma and worked in the prison hospital as an X-ray technician.  After release he eventually integrated into society, getting a respectable job, marrying, and supporting his daughter.

 

When he arrived at Alcatraz, he was an angry and bitter young man with a “maladjusted attitude.” He grew up never really knowing his mother and after a prison minister tracked her down, only to discover that she had died recently and was buried in a pauper’s grave, something changed in Quillen. With no hope of ever getting free, he began a rigorous course toward self-improvement. His attitude changed 180 degrees and he began working in the prison hospital where he sought and received training as a radiology technician.

 

He was transferred to San Quentin in 1952 where he became a certified radiology technician. He was eventually released and although he avoided crime, his personal life was a roller coaster for many years. Eventually, he met the right woman and had a daughter.

 

Jim Quillen wrote in his autobiography, Alcatraz from Inside, “My memories of childhood during the time we were together as a family are mostly of a violent or sad nature.” His tumultuous home life led Quillen to become a “habitual runaway.”  As a teenager, he was sentenced to reform school, the Preston School of Industry, where young people were subjected to prison-like discipline and hard labor.

The Big Lockup.  Incarceration in the United States

Joseph “Dutch” Bowers

December 13, 1896, born in Rohrbach, Austria, died April 27, 1936. Age 39.

Alcatraz: 1934—1936

Bowers was sentenced to 25 years for stealing $16.38 from a convenience store connected to a post office.  He claimed that he was desperate, out of funds, and unable to afford food or lodging. (This reminds me of the story of Les Misérables.)

 

Joseph Bowers was a desperado and loner, unable to come to terms with the conditions of Alcatraz. Imprisoned during the toughest and most strict era in Alcatraz, Bowers, serving a 25-year sentence for Postal Mail Robbery that netted a mere sixteen dollars and thirty-eight cents. He held an expansive criminal record and as one report highlighted: “If at large, he probably would engage again in criminal activities and constitute a serious menace to the public safety and society.” He had claimed, and it was also supported by the belief by fellow inmates that his crimes had resulted from a lacking ability to support himself. He claimed that he was completely desperate and out of funds, hungry, and mostly unable to afford food or proper lodging.

 

Bowers couldn’t handle the stress of prison life and was considered “emotionally unstable” by prison authorities.  At Alcatraz, he was considered insane by fellow inmates and had a history of suicide attempts.  Medical staff dismissed his mental health issues “for the purpose to gain opinion favorable for him.”

 

Bowers was shot and killed by a prison officer in 1936, at age 39, while climbing a chain link fence.  Whether he was trying to escape, harm himself, or simply became disoriented during his work in the area, is still uncertain.

 

On 27 April 1936, convict Henry Larry claims to have watched Bowers, who was feeding seagulls, stack some empty barrels and climb up next to the fence so he could retrieve a bit of food that had fallen on the barbed wire. He stood there feeding the birds for several minutes until a tower guard turned, saw him atop the fence, and fired on the convict. Bowers fell sixty feet to his death on the rocks below.

 

First escape attempt marker. Bowers. (Very different escape accounts follow).

On April 27, 1936, a guard tower stood on these concrete pylons. As officers watched, inmate Joseph Bowers burned garbage in the incinerator straight ahead. Suddenly, Bowers went for the fence, made it over the top, and became the first prisoner to attempt escape from Alcatraz. When he ignored warnings from the guards, he was shot and killed.

 

Bowers attempted to go over, then I yelled at him several times to get down, but he ignored my warning and continued to go over. I fired two shots low and waited a few seconds to see the results. He started on the far side of the fence and I fired one more shot, aiming at his legs. Bowers was hanging on the fence with his hands, but his feet were pointing down toward the cement ledge. After my third shot, I called the Armory and reported the matter. When I returned from phoning the body dropped into the Bay.

 

Bowers finished working on the prison incinerator.  Instead of going back to prison, he headed out towards the surrounding wire fence. The guards ordered him twice to stop, but he refused. They shot twice at the ground. He continued until he reached the fence, then scaled it and dropped down on the other side. The guards shot twice and hit him in the neck and his right thigh. He was propelled headfirst over the Cliff and down 60 feet to the rocks. He died from a bullet lodged in his lungs.

 

Bowers’s escape attempt was believed to be a deliberate suicide by inmates and was the first of the island’s fourteen.

The Big Lockup.  Incarceration in the United States

Robert Lipscomb.

Alcatraz: 1954—1963

“I’ve got to stay here for 15 years, and I want to be treated like other prisoners” are the words of Robert Lipscomb an African American anti-segregationist from Ohio.  Lipscomb had a turbulent upbringing, including a period when he was institutionalized at the age of 9 after being declared psychotic.  He continued to struggle with depression and mental illness throughout his life.

 

By the time Robert Lipscomb arrived at Alcatraz in 1954, the African American Cleveland, Ohio native had spent most of his adult life in midwestern prisons for auto theft and counterfeiting. Suffering from paranoia, depression, and an abusive childhood, Lipscomb was declared psychotic and institutionalized by the age of nine. A psychiatric evaluation, however, revealed Lipscomb to possess an extraordinarily high intellect.

 

His fellow inmates saw this intellect firsthand when, while a prisoner in Michigan and Leavenworth, Lipscomb taught them art, Spanish, French, and music and helped organize Black inmates to protest segregation inside the prison. Labeled a troublemaker for his organizing, Lipscomb was transferred to Alcatraz, where he continued to pioneer efforts to desegregate America’s prisons. Those efforts earned him near-constant punishment at the already notoriously tough prison, including several stints in solitary confinement.

 

Lipscomb was first imprisoned at 18 for auto theft, leading to his incarnation at a state reformatory.  Later convicted of counterfeiting $20 bills, he was sentenced to 25 years at Leavenworth prison.  His escape attempts, parole violations, and perception as a racial agitator and disturbing influence landed him in Alcatraz.

 

Known for his intellect, Lipscomb carefully used Brown vs the Board of Education as the legal foundation to argue against segregation.  His efforts in fighting for better prison conditions included writing letters to several national prison officials and a letter to then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

 

“Such gross disparity between persons for the same crime seemed to be racial persecution rather than judicial prosecution.” – Robert Lipscomb, 1961

 

Lipscomb had a traumatic and destabilizing childhood, filled with petty crimes and crimes of survival. By the time he turned 18, he was sent to prison for grand theft auto. Later, still living under a crisis, he was caught distributing seventeen counterfeit $20 bills. In 1951, he was given a 25-year sentence for that fake $340 and sent to Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas.

 

During his time in Leavenworth, Lipscomb learned about the laws around desegregation and organized with other incarcerated individuals to resist the racist—and, they learned, illegal—practices within the prison’s system. Outside the walls of the penitentiary, the civil rights movement grew and that same search for justice and equality grew inside the penitentiary, too.

 

Armed with the knowledge of President Truman’s executive order desegregating the US military in 1948 and the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that desegregated public schools, Lipscomb knew he had a clear argument for why every incarcerated person should be treated equally. He wouldn’t quietly suffer the injustices in the prison system, and for his activism, he was sent across state lines to the penitentiary on Alcatraz Island.

 

An excerpt from the July 1961 letter from Robert Lipscomb to Hon. James V. Bennett, Director of the US Bureau of Prisons. “I am not going to try to excuse or minimize the difficulties I have had in adjusting to a 25-year sentence involving about $340.00 to $1,000.00 in counterfeit $20 federal reserve notes. You can well imagine my state of mind, shock, and chagrin when I personally met and read about counterfeiters involved in crime on a national and international scale on a magnitude of $1,000,000.00+ whose punishments ranged from probation to 10 years. The gross disparity between persons for the same crime seemed to me to be racial persecution rather than judicial prosecution.”

 

Soon after he was transferred off the island, the penitentiary on Alcatraz was closed. It was never desegregated during its years of operation. In California, prisons weren’t desegregated until after the 2005 US Supreme Court decision that declared it unconstitutional to segregate people inside of a prison.

The Big Lockup.  Incarceration in the United States

Robert Simmons.

Alcatraz: 1918—1920

Robert Simmons was an African American man from Savanna, Georgia, who became a Conscientious Objector during World War I.  His opposition to war and refusal to fight on the battlefields led to his transport to the windswept island of Alcatraz in the winter of 1918.  He was thrown into the “hole,” a pitch-black dungeon cell, where he was held for 14 days.

 

Though the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, World War I Conscientious Objectors endured harsh imprisonment long after the fighting ended.  Simmons was confined to an iron cage, where he was forced to stand, chained to the cell door, unable to sit or turn around, for eight hours a day.  He was finally released from Alcatraz on February 27, 1920, more than a year after the war ended.

 

At Alcatraz, then a military prison, Simmons was one of 30 Conscientious Objectors – both political and religious. Simmons was one of the “absolutists, Conscientious Objector” who refused to obey any military order – whether putting on a uniform or joining a work gang. Every time they refused to comply; their sentences were extended. When they were released from the dungeon, they were placed in “iron cages,” cells where they were forced to stand, chained to the cell door, unable to sit or even turn around, for eight hours a day.

 

Their protests brought outside investigators to Alcatraz from church groups and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) who documented the brutal conditions and complained to the federal government. The dungeons were not abandoned until the ACLU forced a high-level military inspection of the prison.

The Big Lockup.  Incarceration in the United States

Leon “Whitey” Thompson

July 20, 1960: Leon “Whitey” Thompson arrives at Alcatraz.  Leon was serving a five-year sentence for illegal possession of unregistered firearms.  He is only one of a small group of men released directly from Alcatraz after the courts vacated his sentence in October 1962.  In later years Thompson became an author, lecturer on crime, and a celebrity on the Rock.  He passed away in June 2005 at 82 years of age. 

The Big Lockup.  Incarceration in the United States

John Richard Banner

June 20, 1954: John Richard Banner is directly committed to Alcatraz, serving a 20-year term for bank robbery.

 

“The longer you are away from a place the softer the memories become,” said John Banner, an 80-year-old former bank robber who served four years in the prison that came to be known as “the rock” in San Francisco Bay in the 1950s.

 

Banner spent about half his life in and out of prison before reforming for good, marrying, and raising a family. But he said time could not erase all the unpleasant memories of being locked up. There were the monotonous days, the ice-cold showers, and the razors that were so sharp they “cut your face up terribly whenever you tried to shave,” he said.

The Big Lockup.  Incarceration in the United States

Darwin Evert Coon

1959—1963

Born January 23, 1933, in Woodbury County, Iowa, died February 6, 2011, in San Francisco, California (age 78).

 

Coon was a convicted bank robber who spent four years in prison at Alcatraz. He was incarcerated there from 1959 through 1963 and was a member of the last group of inmates to leave the island prison when it closed.

 

Mr. Coon died on February 7, after a stroke. He was 78 and lived in Sacramento. He also spent a lot of time in San Francisco, especially on Alcatraz and the Alcatraz ferry docks, where he sold his book and chatted with tourists.

 

In fact, Mr. Coon was a prison veteran: He started at reform school in Iowa and served time with the California Youth Authority, the federal penitentiary in El Reno, Oklahoma, the Nevada State Prison in Carson City, and Leavenworth.

 

He was what convicts call an escape artist. After breaking out of the Nevada prison, he went on a crime spree holding up banks. He then went to federal prison, broke rules again, and in 1959 wound up at Alcatraz, which he called “the true end of the line.”

 

That was the title of his book. If pressed, Mr. Coon would say that the Rock was “a living hell.” He spent four years there, including 29 days in pitch blackness in an isolation cell.

 

“I prayed a lot,” he said of his time in isolation. “You got no one to talk to, but the Lord is always there. And he’s available. So, I talked to him.”

Prison Statistics in the United States of America.

The U.S. locks up more people per capita than any other nation, at a staggering rate of 573 per 100,000 residents.  Why are 1.9 million people confined nationwide? 

Race Percent Total Incarcerated Rate/100,000 Incarcerated
2021 statistics. Total population 100.0 333,278,557   1,287,022
Whites 59.8 199,300,577 214 426,503
Hispanic or Latino 18.9 62,989,647 525 330,696
Black or African American 13.6 45,325,884 1,096 496,772
Asian 6.1 20,329,992 46 9,352
American Indian and Alaska Native 1.3 4,332,621 547 23,699
Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander 0.3 999,836    

 

According to Prison Policy Initiative, the U.S. doesn’t have one “criminal justice system;” instead, we have thousands of federal, state, local, and tribal systems. Together, these systems hold almost 2 million people in 1,566 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,850 local jails, 1,510 juvenile correctional facilities, 186 immigration detention facilities, and 82 Indian country jails, as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories.

 

When Alcatraz closed in 1963, African Americans and Latinx comprised about 35% of the population, while these two groups made up less than 15% of the general population.  Today, racial disparity persists in the prison population: Blacks and Latinx comprise 57% of incarcerated people but makeup only 27% of the United States population.


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