Alcatraz: Rigid and Unusual Punishment

Oct 9, 2009 - by Michael Esslinger - 0 Comments



During the 29 years Alcatraz operated as a federal penitentiary it built a reputation as a Devil's Island of the soul. If Al Capone was the nation's symbol of lawlessness, then Alcatraz would be the nation's symbol for punishing the lawless.

by Michael Esslinger

Alcatraz. The name alone said it all. It was meant to send a shudder down the spines of the nation's most incorrigible criminals, and it did from the day it opened in 1934. It stripped Al Capone of his power. It tamed "Machine Gun" Kelly into a model of decorum. It took the birds away from the Birdman of Alcatraz.

Alcatraz was the end of the line. It was the U.S. government's version of the "final solution" to combating the lawlessness that Prohibition spewed throughout the Roaring 20s and into the teeth of the Great Depression. The government needed a prison as tough and harsh as the high-profile criminals it was finally running to ground. In Alcatraz, with its damp coldness, austere isolation, rigid discipline and code of silence, it got what it wanted. By the time the government shut down the prison in 1963, "the Rock" had indisputably done its job.

Today, Alcatraz is one of the biggest tourist magnets and famous landmarks of San Francisco. The island's mystique, created primarily by books and motion pictures, lures over a million visitors a year from around the world to see first-hand where the U.S. government broke some of its most notorious criminals. They journey into a dim piece of Americana. Many go away to remember for the rest of their lives the hair-raising chill they felt upon being locked up, for just a few seconds, in an isolation cell. The clichéd expression "if these walls could talk" is taken to a deeper level when probing the rigid silence of Alcatraz.

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