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Alcatraz: The Real Alcatraz

on Mon, 02/06/2012 - 00:00

“On March 21, 1963, Alcatraz officially closed due to rising costs and decrepit facilities,” FBI agent Emerson Hauser explains at the beginning of the FOX drama Alcatraz. “All the prisoners were transferred off the island. Only that’s not what happened. Three-hundred-and-two men disappeared that night, never seen or heard from again. Until now.” The series thus follows Hauser, homicide detective Rebecca Madsen and Dr. Diego “Doc” Soto as they track down these former Alcatraz prisoners in the present day while attempting to unravel the mystery of what happened to them nearly sixty years earlier.

Alcatraz is both a weekly crime drama as well as alternative history of the infamous island prison. Its roots lie within the realm of science fiction but during flashback sequences designed to offer a better understanding of the criminals being hunted in the Twenty First Century, Alcatraz also offers a fairly accurate description of life on The Rock. While Diego Soto is described as the “world’s foremost expert” on Alcatraz in the series, in real life that distinction is held by author Michael Esslinger. Soto is credited with writing four books pertaining to Alcatraz—Inmates of Alcatraz, Alcatraz by the Numbers, Guards of Alcatraz and Alcatraz: Friends and Family. Esslinger, meanwhile, has two tomes to his credit, Letters from Alcatraz and Alcatraz: A Definitive History of the Penitentiary Years.

“Through meticulous research, he has captured he experience of Alcatraz with an authentic voice,” former inmate Darwin E. Coon writes of Esslinger in the introduction to Alcatraz: A Definitive History. “It is a skilled blend of history and character study, and a compelling portrait of America’s most notorious prison.”

The small island off the California coast was named Alcatraz by a Spanish naval lieutenant in 1775 because of its multitude of pelican inhabitants, but the land mass went virtually unutilized for seventy five years until the US Military realized its strategic value in regards to defending San Francisco from potential attacks. During the Civil War, meanwhile, confederate prisoners were sent to Alcatraz and the possible use of the island as an “escape-proof prison for hard-core offenders” began to materialize. The military abandoned Alcatraz in 1934, just as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was in the midst of a “war with the American gangster” and determined to establish a “super-prison” to house the country’s most dangerous convicts. That prison became Alcatraz.

In the episode of Alcatraz entitled “Kit Nelson,” Diego Soto discovers packs of name-brand cigarettes within the belongings of a former inmate. “These went for five bucks a pack,” he explains. “Only Al Capone or Machine Gun Kelly could afford these.” In Alcatraz: A Definitive History, Michael Esslinger offers a biographical description of those notorious criminals, as well as others who found themselves held captive on The Rock. Capone is by far the most famous inhabitant of Alcatraz, and his story as the predominant gangster kingpin of the era is well documented in both film and literature. When convicted of tax evasion in 1931, he was initially interned at Atlanta Federal Penitentiary and found it relatively easy to manipulate the system, bribe security guards and continue to live in relative comfort despite his incarceration. It was because of this ability to “leverage the system” that Al Capone was moved to Alcatraz in 1934, where he became just another prisoner in a much harsher environment with limited access to the outside world.

George “Machine Gun” Kelly is another legendary criminal of the 1920s and 30s spotlighted by Michael Esslinger in his book on Alcatraz. Originally a bootlegger, he moved on to bank robbery and kidnapping after marrying Kathryn Thorne in 1930. Thorne herself had a criminal background as well as a flair for marketing and the dramatic. It was Thorne, for instance, who purchased a machine gun for her husband and spread word of his notoriety throughout the underworld. This fame, however, only led to Kelly’s eventual rise to “Public Enemy Number One” and later conviction in the kidnapping of oil tycoon Charles Urscehl. Initially sent to Leavenworth, Kelly bragged that he could escape from prison with relative ease. His threats were taken seriously, and Machine Gun Kelly was transferred to Alcatraz as a precaution. While Al Capone continued to be defiant during his time on The Rock, the same is not true of Kelly. “He took a job as an altar boy in the prison chapel, worked in the laundry, and served out his time quietly,” Esslinger writes.

The flashback sequences on the FOX drama Alcatraz feature the fictitious Warden Edwin James and his Associate Warden E.B. Tiller in addition to the prisoners whose exploits serve as the center of each installment. Tiller is described as having “ruled with an iron fist, engendering no end of animosity from the inmates,” while James is depicted as the undisputed ruler of Alcatraz Island. During the episode “Ernst Cobb,” for instance, James denies the request of an inmate desiring more “quiet” living conditions. The prisoner in turn defies regulations and lands in solitary confinement nonetheless.

“I got to hand it to you, you could have done anything,” Edwin James tells him afterwards. “But you showed real smarts. Studied that rule book till you found the perfect infraction. ‘Number Twenty-Eight, Daily Routine. Stand by your cell door facing out. Remain their till the bell signal sounds again.’ Simple. Elegant. You committed the smallest breach and in the most public ways, you forced my hand. You win son, fair and square.” James is not finished, however, as he then places a “talkative” prisoner into the same cell. “This is my prison,” he explains when the initial inmate complains. “I can do whatever the hell I like.”

Alcatraz had a total of five wardens throughout its tenure as a Federal Penitentiary—James A. Johnston (1934-1948), Edwin B. Swope (1948-1955), Paul Madigan (1955-1961) and Olin Blackwell (1961-1963)—and Michael Esslinger includes brief biographical sketches of each of these men in Alcatraz: A Definitive History. Unlike the benevolent nature of their fictitious brethren on Alcatraz, the real-life wardens of the institution were “strict disciplinarians” that likewise showcased a “humanistic approach to reform.” Each successive warden also brought their own level of deregulations regarding the treatment of prisoners under their care, from the screening of two movies a month as entertainment, the elimination of a “bread and water diet” for those in solitary confinement and additional items in the yearly Christmas gift packages. Still, those locked away on Alcatraz continued to follow strict, structured routines while insubordination and even the slightest hint at special treatment was never tolerated, regardless of who was warden.

During the pilot episode of Alcatraz, Rebecca Madsen comments that she cannot imagine children living on The Rock along with their prison guard parents. According to Michael Esslinger, Alcatraz was indeed the home to over fifty families and close to one-hundred children at any given time. Despite the harsh conditions allotted prisoners, however, the same was not true for these civilians. “Those who lived and grew up on the island have mostly considered it a rare and privileged lifestyle,” he writes. “They found that life on Alcatraz was like residing in a small and very close-knit community. Even more interesting was the fact that there was no crime on the island, no one locked their doors, and the residents never carried house keys.”

The beginning of the initial installment of Alcatraz features a lone tugboat arriving at the island in the dead of night on March 21, 1963, to remove the remaining prisoners before the closing of the facility. Instead of two-hundred fifty-six inmates and forty-six guards, however, they find Alcatraz eerily deserted. In reality, however, there were only twenty-seven inmates remaining on the island during its last day as a penitentiary, and in addition to the transport units, members of the press were likewise allowed on Alcatraz to witness the end of an era. Breakfast was served in the usual fashion before the prisoners were handcuffed, shackled and escorted for their final departure. Frank Weatherman, the last “new” prisoner on Alcatraz, was also the last to leave. The press asked him how he felt about the closure, to which he responded, “Alcatraz was never good for anybody.”

Fans of the FOX drama of the same name may differ as the series offers entertaining “crime of the week” narratives shrouded in a larger mystery surrounding the disappearance of three-hundred-and-two men and their reappearance sixty years later. Alcatraz looms large in the backdrop on the television series as much as it did in real-world America during its years as a Federal prison—a period of time that Michael Esslinger brings to life in Alcatraz: A Definitive History of the Penitentiary Years in much the same way as Dr. Diego Soto and his own fictitious tomes on Alcatraz.

Anthony Letizia (February 6, 2012)

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