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Alcatraz— “The Rock”— is one of four islands in San Francisco Bay. Capped with a fortress cellhouse, lighthouse, and water tower, it’s an imposing presence all along the San Francisco waterfront. Its history as a maximum-security prison for high-profile criminals, burnished by Hollywooden embellishment and the general American fascination with prisons, makes it one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. Today Alcatraz is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, under National Park Service administration. It’s accessible only by ferry boats operated by a monopoly concessionaire. Reservations are essential; in the summer, tickets can sell out a week in advance.
Spanish navigator Juan Manuel de Ayala “discovered” the island in 1775, although it was well known to local Indians long before then. He named it La Isla de los Alcatraces, after the many pelicans (alcatraces) he saw there. Over the years, the pelican flock seems to have declined to just one— Alcatraz. The Spanish island (along with the rest of California) became American in 1848. Soon after San Francisco became a boom town from the 1849 gold rush, the Army built a series of forts to defend San Francisco Bay. Set in the middle of the bay, the fort on Alcatraz Island was an ideal place for cannons, as well as for a lighthouse first built there in 1854. Although the Coast Guard replaced it with the current “new” lighthouse in 1909, it’s considered the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast.
The military buildup increased during the Civil War, to defend San Francisco against a Confederate threat that never materialized. That’s also when the Army first recognized Alcatraz Island’s potential as a prison. Surrounded by water with treacherous cold currents, the island was a secure place to lock up Confederate sympathizers from all over California— and indeed, no prisoner ever successfully escaped from Alcatraz. After the war, the fort became a military detention facility. It also temporarily held civilian prisoners after the 1906 earthquake, and a group of Hopi Indian men from Arizona who refused to let officers take their children away to boarding schools under assimilation laws. The current cellhouse replaced the old fort in 1912. The world’s largest steel-reinforced concrete building at the time, it upgraded Alcatraz to an official military prison formally known as the United States Disciplinary Barracks, Pacific Branch. During World War I, draft evaders and conscientious objectors enjoyed full military hospitality in the new barracks.
In the early 1930s, the Justice Department decided that Alcatraz would be just right for a special secure facility to house high-profile federal criminals. The first civilian prisoners arrived in 1934. A number of “celebrities” served time there, including tax-evading mobster Al Capone, kidnapper George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and “birdman” Robert Stroud, who actually did his research on canaries in Leavenworth, Kansas before his disciplinary problems landed him in Alcatraz (without his birds). But most inmates were there because of violent behavior in other prisons, making Alcatraz the forerunner of today’s “supermax” facilities. They remained until they were no longer deemed “incorrigible”— typically eight to ten years— and then returned to normal prisons. In 1963, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy decided to close Alcatraz and replace it with a new prison in Marion, Illinois. The stated reason was the unusually high cost of operating Alcatraz. But I also suspect that the Justice Department had by then decided that sequestering prisoners in remote locations was better than keeping them in highly visible places like Alcatraz.
Beginning in November 1969, hundreds of Indian activists from various tribes occupied the abandoned island for eighteen months. Invoking an obscure 1868 treaty, they claimed that any unused federal land belonged to the Indians who originally owned it. The occupation had some success in increasing public awareness of Indian issues. But in June 1971 federal officials decided enough was enough. They forcibly removed the remaining Indians and began demolishing the island’s buildings. Congress stopped the demolition in 1972 by creating the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which includes Alcatraz. Under National Park Service administration, Alcatraz soon became a popular tourist attraction.
I visited Alcatraz in October 2008, at the height of the Presidential election campaign to replace George W. Bush. The sight of the three-tiered cellblocks invoked horrifying thoughts of the Bush administration’s “detention facilities” that so damaged America’s reputation around the world: Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Bagram. Plus the nameless CIA “black sites” around the world, and the outsourced torture of “extraordinary rendition.” Add to that the domestic warrantless wiretaps, searches, and surveillance. The unchecked, unaccountable expansion of secret watchlists with over a million names of “suspects.” And Bush’s contemptuous repudiation of the checks, balances, and constitutional constraints meant to ensure that prisons like Alcatraz incarcerate only those convicted of specific offenses using proper evidence and procedures. As a non-Muslim citizen, the risk of my becoming a “detainee” was surely very small. But such fears are very real under any regime that insists— as Bush’s lawyers repeatedly argued in court— that it has the unlimited power to arrest, indefinitely detain, and possibly torture anyone it decides is an “enemy combatant” under criteria it alone determines, without charges and with no way to challenge the detention.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons’ self-congratulatory museum exhibit was even more depressing. It included a display showing the incarceration rates in various countries, proclaiming with clearly apparent pride that the United States by far leads the world in prisons and prisoners. With 2.3 million incarcerated as of the end of 2007, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 1% of American adults are currently behind bars. (Including people on probation and parole increases that number to 7.2 million, or 2.6% of American adults.) The exhibit also compared the crimes Alcatraz inmates committed— murder, kidnapping, mass homicide, mob activities— with those of today’s prison population— overwhelmingly drug offenses. As so many hard-working people have dedicated themselves to fighting the War on Drugs since President Richard Nixon declared it in 1969, I suppose they deserve recognition and appreciation for what they’ve achieved.
I really couldn’t understand the intent of that exhibit. Could it be meant to highlight the Bureau’s important role in keeping us and our children safe from drugs and crime? Some Americans might find that reassuring. But I suspect it could leave foreign visitors baffled about the American obsession with building and filling prisons. At Alcatraz I heard a diverse collection of languages, spoken by a crowd of fellow visitors that notably included groups of Germans and Israelis. The mingled sounds of German and Hebrew echoing from the cellhouse walls added a particularly surreal note to the experience.
I didn’t see anyone else who appeared troubled by political or philosophical concerns. People gawked and laughed, talked about movies, and pointed at various cells wondering whether they were Al Capone’s or the “birdman’s.” (Actually, inmates were frequently moved; so it’s really not possible to identify any cells particular individuals might have occupied.) Couples and friends joked and bantered while waiting their turn to take smiling snapshots in the “furnished” cells provided for that purpose. But as best I could tell, I was the only one there traveling alone. Could there really be something to the assertions of solo travel enthusiasts that a “soloist” enjoys a deeper, richer, and more meaningful experience than someone who is distracted by companions? I still don’t believe that.
Regardless of the feelings it inspired, I found Alcatraz a truly fascinating place to photograph. It’s a mixture of ruins and arrested decay, both of which offer interesting image possibilities. The combination of low light and the crowd of fellow visitors made photographing inside the cellhouse a particular challenge. I find that the most satisfactory approach in such a situation is to isolate details and abstract patterns— such as bars and metalwork, and their shadows— with a long lens. Use existing light. Save the flash for the snapshots of family and friends hamming it up in the prison cells. Flash otherwise makes bland and uninteresting lighting, and won’t carry far enough to illuminate an entire cellblock. And the “grainy” noise of high ISO settings only enhances the grittiness.
I had the advantage of a clear bright autumn day, which provided
strong contrast and interesting shadows that would have been lacking
under the more typical San Francisco overcast. The late afternoon
sunlight also suffused everything with a warm glow that seemed oddly
incongruous for such a stark, foreboding place. I had originally planned
to convert my Alcatraz pictures to black and white, perhaps with the
grainy, contrasty look of high-speed film. Had the sky been the usual
overcast, I definitely would have done that, to bring some snap to the
resulting soft, flat lighting. But looking at the pictures on my
monitor, it immediately became apparent that heightened color (like
Fuji Velvia slide film) would be more interesting.
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