SAN FRANCISCO: Prisons hold a fascination for many, mainly for the secrets they hold, and the stories that would never be told.
That could perhaps account for the fact that they continue to woo visitors long after they shut their doors to unwilling guests.
It is therefore no surprise that the federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay continues to welcome 1.5 million visitors a year, according to the US National Park Service.
Of course, no one arrives shackled now.
A 12-minute ferry ride from Pier 33 in San Francisco will take the visitor to the island, nicknamed “The Rock”.
There is a short hike up from the wharf to the summit where the prison proper is located, but the less mobile could take the tram.
One quickly realises, upon stepping into the prison, is that this is going to be a foreboding experience.
In its day, arriving guests would be taken to the “reception”, an area marked off by a counter and wire mesh.
Behind the counter are shelves on which incoming prisoners left all their personal belongings in exchange for prison garb, called the “Alcatraz blue”, that they would wear until it was time for them to check out.
The “guest” did not expect to be served a welcome drink but could be assured of long-term accommodation.
Cells are located on three floors, facing each other across a corridor on the ground floor.
They are compact, each measuring 2.7metres x 1.5metres x 2.1metres.
Apart from a single bed, the only other amenities are a wash basin, a toilet bowl and two shelves secured to the wall that served as a table and seat.
Prisoners who became a problem would be sent to solitary confinement, a cell of complete darkness where, one may assume, the prisoner would have been forced to contemplate his actions.
Henri Theodore Young, a convicted bank robber and murderer, and Rufus McCain, who with Young and two others tried to escape Alcatraz, spent three months in solitary confinement, the longest for any prisoner.
The corridors now bear names of famous places in the US, such as Broadway and Madison Avenue. The area near the entrance to the dining hall is known as Times Square.
In the prison, there was no privacy but hot showers were a sure thing. There were no shower stalls, just 40 shower heads set in rows, so the prisoners cleaned themselves under the watchful eye of the guards.
For literate inmates there was a library with 15,000 volumes on philosophy, non-fiction and educational materials lining its shelves.
Long days with nothing to do turned many of them into voracious readers, some reading an average of 75 to 100 books a year.
Alcatraz’s history began in the mid-19th century when a lighthouse was built on the island. It also served as a military outpost and prison before it was converted into a maximum security penitentiary in 1934. Its last inmate Frank Weatherman walked down the gangway and left the island on March 21, 1963.
One of the many chapters in its ugly history recounts events of the 1890s when a group of native American elders were held for refusing to have their children taken away and schooled in the Western way.
It was part of a plan to Americanise the natives and in the process wipe out their language and culture.
Unsurprisingly, Alcatraz’s guest list was a who’s who of notoriety. They included Chicago mob boss Al Capone, public enemy number one George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Robert Stroud, also known as the Birdman of Alcatraz and America’s most notorious outlaw Roy Gardner.
Even after it ceased to be a place of incarceration, Alcatraz continued to make the news. On Nov 20, 1969, a group of 89 native Americans and their supporters occupied the island to assert their right to the territory under a treaty that guaranteed them federal lands that were abandoned or no longer in use by the US government.
The siege ended on June 11, 1971 when the US government retook the island.
There were many escape attempts too. One that remains a mystery is that of brothers John and Clarence Anglin and Frank Morris. They were never found and to this day, whether or not they made it across the bay remains a mystery.
Perhaps there is more to the Alcatraz story than that behind its walls.