'Hidden Alcatraz': The Past Lives of Our Most Infamous Prison

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A new book takes you everywhere from the warden's home to mysterious tunnels, showing off the island's forgotten history

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Laundry room, Alcatraz Island. Anton Orlov

When we think of the isolated crag that is Alcatraz Island, images of America's worst cons serving one of the harshest possible sentences come to mind. But "The Rock" was a federal prison for only 29 years of its existence. Before it became a notorious penitentiary, the island had not just one but two previous lives. And, after it emptied its prison cells in 1963—before it capitalized on its infamy and transitioned into a museum—the island became a symbol of the Native American solidarity movement of the 1970s.

The recently released Hidden Alcatraz (University of California Press, April 2011, $24.95), featuring nearly 100 photographs of the island taken over a four-year period, reveals these layers of Alcatraz's long history. I spoke with Alcatraz historian and retired park ranger John Martini—who worked on the island when it opened to the public as a National Park and historical landmark, and who wrote the book's introduction—about the island's many pasts.

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In 1835, way before Alcatraz housed the likes of Al Capone and George "Machine Gun" Kelly, the island first served as one of many fortresses protecting San Francisco. As a result of the California Gold Rush, the city's population had swelled from about 500 to over 30,000, and the metropolis needed some sort of protection from possible attacks. Sitting in the middle of the San Francisco Bay bottleneck, the island was centrally located, and any ships would have to pass by. Nobody ever attacked, but the it still had its utility. "You might say it's sort of like having bars on the windows of your house," Martini says. "The fact that you were never attacked doesn't mean that those bars were not a good investment."

When the Civil War began in 1861, Alcatraz transitioned into its second phase of existence, becoming a military prison. The army continued increasing the number of weapons on the island, but its inaccessible location made it a desirable place to hold military prisoners. After the war ended, the island continued holding captives, even as its significance as a fortress waned. By 1902, Alcatraz had more than 400 prisoners, and in 1915 the military officially renamed it after completing renovations to accommodate the island's new population. It became the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, Alcatraz Island.

In 1933, the island became a financial burden and the military left. Alcatraz then entered its most notorious state of being: federal penitentiary. The island's visibility and isolation made it attractive to the Department of Justice. Again, it would serve as a deterrent, but this time it would showcase America's worst criminals serving time. And it was difficult to escape from, to boot.

9780520260849_sized.jpg This era lasted only about three decades, but it's what the Island is most know for today. "The notoriety was based on Hollywood movies and prisoners who were selling their stories to the media," Martini says. "They were really punching up the 'Hellcatraz.'"

While the media and outsiders sensationalized Alcatraz, as far as prisons went it was fair to its inmates. It fed them well and the high level of security kept assaults and gang violence to a minimum. What made it such a harsh sentence wasn't its brutality, but the monotony. "Unending boredom," Martini explains. "You started in your cell 23 hours a day." Alcatraz pioneered what we think of today as super maximum security ("supermax") prisons. "The concept of one-man cells, constantly watching a man, metal detectors, electric remote-control locking doors—all of those were pioneered at Alcatraz."

In 1963 Alcatraz again fell victim to budget constraints and closed. The island lay uninhabited until 1969, when a group of Native American activists claimed it as Indian land, citing an 1868 treaty with the Sioux Nation as justification. The dispute lasted for less than two years. A lack of supplies, political infighting, and tribal frictions led the group to disband. Eventually the government removed the final holdouts.

Shortly after, in October 1973, the island became what we know it as today: a National Park dedicated to remembering only the prison but also each of these incarnations. Martini explains that the park opened as an experiment—they weren't sure if people would return after the initial mystery wore off. But almost 30 years later, visitors keep coming back to see the layers of Alcatraz's past, from its buried legacy as a fort and military prison to the crumbling infrastructure hyped by Hollywood.

Images: University of California Press

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Rebecca Greenfield is a writer based in Brooklyn. She was formerly on staff at The Atlantic Wire.

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