Ramblings & ephemera

Alcatraz: reality & Hollywood

From Dashka Slater’s “Lights, Camera, Lockdown” (Legal Affairs: May/June 2003):

The first two Alcatraz films, Alcatraz Island and The Last Gangster, arrived in theaters in 1937; the most recent, Half Past Dead, came out last November. In the 65 years in between, Alcatraz has been the subject of some two dozen movies and has made guest appearances in many more. There have been prison movies, horror movies, comedies, romances, action films, cartoons, and even porn flicks set on Alcatraz. It’s rare for a Hollywood set to last even a few weeks after a film is complete, but the prison is so popular with filmmakers that a meticulous replica of its cellblock, first created for the Clint Eastwood film Escape From Alcatraz, has resided on a Culver City soundstage for more than 20 years. It has provided penal ambience for hundreds of movies, television shows, commercials, and music videos. …

THE FEDERAL PENITENTIARY AT ALCATRAZ opened on August 22, 1934. It was to be a prison like no other, a high-tech, escape-proof, super-maximum warehouse for the nation’s most incorrigible bad guys. …

The secrecy had been designed to deflate the celebrity reputations of gangsters like Al Capone, who had enjoyed special treatment at other prisons. James A. Johnston, the prison’s first warden, believed that egoism was the chief failing of recidivists. His prescription was total isolation and total anonymity. At Alcatraz, he promised, Capone and his ilk would become “forgotten men.” …

The articles emphasized the prison’s harshness and brutality, chronicling its excruciating rule of silence, which required prisoners to stay mute except during a two-hour recreation period on Sundays, and describing the dank “Spanish dungeons” where prisoners were sent for disobeying rules.

Many of these accounts were embellished, and some of the more lurid tales were pure fabrications. Alcatraz was tough but not barbaric. Inmates were guaranteed the basics of food, shelter, clothing, and medical attention; everything else – work, exercise, visitors – had to be earned. Minor infractions – failing to finish the food on your plate, talking while in the cellhouse, sassing a guard – brought a swift reduction in privileges. More serious violations, like taking a swing at a guard, sent prisoners to the chilly darkness of “the hole.” Particularly obstreperous prisoners were hosed down with cold water from the bay, a practice that earned the warden the nickname “Saltwater” Johnston.

Alcatraz was hardly a country club, but it was still one of the better-run prisons in the United States. Inmates had their own cells, an improvement over bunking with another con. These five-by-nine-foot cells were cramped, but each had its own light and running water, and prisoners could order as many books as they wanted from the prison library. The cellblock was kept at a comfortable 70 degrees and the food was considered some of the best in the prison system. …

Throughout the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, films like Train to Alcatraz, Prison Train, King of Alcatraz, San Francisco Docks, and The House Across the Bay picked up the mythology of the “Inside Alcatraz” accounts and ran with it, depicting the prison as a place that made even hardened cons quake in their leg irons. …

… fewer than 300 prisoners [were] kept there at any one time …

The island’s reputation was increasingly out of step with the times, and the prison was facing more tangible problems as well. After years of exposure to the salt air, the fortress was literally falling apart, and the cost of repairs was prohibitive. The prison closed in 1963 …

IN 1972, AFTER LANGUISHING IN BUREAUCRATIC LIMBO for nearly a decade, Alcatraz became a national park, a move that allowed Hollywood to begin making movies on the Rock itself. …

The Park Service originally thought interest in the prison would peter out within five years. Instead, the park receives 1.5 million visitors a year, about five times as many as Antietam or Little Big Horn and nearly as many as Mt. Rushmore. …

Hollywood is responsible, in large part, for making the former penitentiary recognizable as a prison rather than just a decaying collection of empty Depression-era buildings. Escape From Alcatraz brought fresh coats of paint to the mess hall and D block, as well as the yellow stripes (which never existed when the prison was open) that now run down the main cellhouse corridor. Murder in the First funded the restoration of a guard tower on the dock, and The Rock paid for the removal of hazardous waste. Leftover Hollywood props – metal detectors, cell cots, benches, even pillows – have stayed on as permanent adornments, giving tourists a sense of what the penitentiary was like when it was operating. Over time it has become difficult to distinguish Hollywood’s Alcatraz from the real one.

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