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EASY MAGAZINE: Alcatraz – cooler than fiction

CAROL MARTINDALE, [email protected]

EASY MAGAZINE: Alcatraz – cooler than fiction

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“Break the rules and you go to prison; break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz.”

 “You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention. Anything else you get is a privilege”.

Number 5, Alcatraz Prison Rules and Regulations 1934.


WITH THE RECENT decommissioning of Glendairy Prison, which was built in 1855, I was transported back to this summer in June when I took a trip to San Francisco.

I just knew I had to visit this city after I saw pictures taken by a good friend who had vacationed there the year before.  

Before travelling to San Francisco, I had done my research and I was armed with my list of things to do. That included a visit to the Golden Gate Bridge, which features prominently as a backdrop in so many big screen movies. Wine tours in Napa Valley and Sonoma were also a must. 

But the kicker for me was a trip to Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, also the subject of so many books. Alcatraz sits on an island just about a mile and a quarter away from San Francisco, and from the edge of the Rock the bright city lights brighten the skyline.

Alcatraz has always piqued my curiosity as it is known as the place where hardened, notorious criminals like  Al “Scarface” Capone and Robert Stroud, also known as The Birdman, were housed.

In short, Alcatraz has always been linked to America’s dark side. 

Alcatraz was first used as a fort and lighthouse, but back in 1900 it was decided that the facility, also known as The Rock was better suited to be a military prison.

A massive cell house was then built on the island’s slopes. 

By 1912, the jailhouse was ready for its first set of occupants. In 1933, control of Alcatraz was then transferred from the military to the Justice Department.

That handover then gave way to the well known US penitentiary Alcatraz.

That meant the facility had to be transformed to an escape proof “bastille in the bay”.

The Bureau of Prisons wanted the facility because it was a place for a high profile maximum security facility.

Alcatraz reopened in 1934 as a federal penitentiary. Of the 1 545 men who served time on Alcatraz, literally only a handful were notorious. 

In addition to Al Capone and The Birdman, there was also “Doc” Barker, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Floyd Hamilton. 

Most of the men sent to Alcatraz were troublemakers at other jails.

There were about 14 attempted escapes, the most known was in June 1962 when Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin slipped into the water. They used raincoats as flotations devices. Their bodies were never discovered and it was presumed they drowned.

That’s some of the history shared about The Rock when I visited.

While it was interesting information to have about this piece of American history and one of the reasons I went there, what was more intriguing for me was how this facility was preserved over the years and presented itself as a popular tourist attraction for San Francisco.

Alcatraz has been under the protection of the National Park Service since 1972 and staff work hard to maintain the integrity of the facility.

That’s why I draw the parallels between Glendairy and Alcatraz.

To me, the potential of Glendairy as a tourist attraction now that it has been decommissioned is considerable.

This has been reinforced not only after my visit to Alcatraz, but also after I got the opportunity to tour Glendairy last weekend.

Albeit on a totally different scale, Glendairy can easily be turned into the ‘Alcatraz’ of Barbados.

With its long history, stories of escapes, including those of notorious criminal Winston Hall, the art done by the prisoners as well as the local treats, like sweet bread, currant slices and rock cakes prepared by the hands of those who have done wrong in society and are paying the price, there is definitely a way to turn this building into a moneymaking machine for Barbados.

At Alcatraz, from the time you step foot on the Rock there is a briefing of ‘dos and donts’, in addition to information about bathroom locations as well as detailing safety procedures.

You then proceed to a central briefing area, similar to what was done at the start of the Glendairy tour last week. There, you were briefed a bit on Glendairy, while at Alcatraz, there was a 20-minute film about the prison which set the tone for the tour.

From there, you could not only determine the path and order your tour would take, but also dictate the pace. 

Another interesting difference was that while the tour at Glendairy was conducted by knowledgeable tour guides, many of whom worked there, at Alcatraz there were audio tours.

At the start of the tour you were handed earphones, for which you control the volume as well as language. The tours were narrated by a number of people who were closely associated with the prison – from prison warders, including the lone black warder, to prisoners who did time at the jail.

The audio tours were not only detailed but so precise that you knew exactly where you would have been at every point – be it by the clock in the cell corridor, a cell from which a prisoner made good his escape or some other important piece of information that created history of The Rock.

The sounds of Alcatraz were also captured on audio. Loud clashes of prison noises and fights boomed in your ear, helping to bring the tour to life.

The tour at Alcatraz took an easy five hours from the time you arrived via ferry, to the time you boarded it to head back to the city of San Francisco. 

There was so much to see on tour – the gardens that were pruned by prisoners, the chief warder’s office and his private home on Alcatraz, where children once played and families were raised. The various cells were preserved, some with clippings on the wall, others with art leaning on makeshift shelves.

One cell from which a prisoner broke free was even kept intact to show how he managed to fool prison officers into thinking he was asleep, thanks to rolled bedding giving the impression that a body was in the bed.

The tour at Glendairy was equally interesting. My tour guide, Frank Butcher, who worked maximum security at Glendairy, had a wealth of information to share as he recalled every detail – from suicides to the escapes by prisoners . . . including the infamous Winston Hall. Ably assisted by Simone Gill of the Barbados Prison Service, they both were able to capture the rich history of Glendairy while holding the attention of the group.

While this is a first attempt to conduct such tours and there is no doubt that a lot more needs to be done to get the prison up to marks if it is the plan of Government to utilise this facility as a tourist attraction, Alcatraz can no doubt provide a template for any future development of Glendairy.

Alcatraz closed its doors as a prison on March 21, 1963. (CM)