ASPECTS OF ALCATRAZ –
An Artistic Dissertation in the Spirit of Space Art, 2021 [NFT]
In the summer of 2019, I had traveled to California and, like many other tourists, ended up on the island of Alcatraz. Even though it was July, San Francisco Bay was cold, humid and foggy. The morning ferry ride was a journey from the reality of a big city to the own secluded little world, with its own laws, past hopes floating in the air, and the sounds of the past echoing in the walls, in the same area and space.
While the island, The Rock, is somehow familiar from movies, in reality it seems much more modest and less threatening. Island like an island, a stone making a stone, in the middle of a windy bay. The cold and strong ocean currents surrounding the island have risen to an epic reputation because they were believed to have been the best guard for the island’s inmates. However, without humans, ocean currents are only a natural part of a complex geographical and biological system. The island is a convenient distance away, close, but kind of far from everything, especially if you had happened to be behind bars without a hint of hope.
The island was well-known among Native Americans, but the first European-born visitor there was reportedly the Spanish naval officer Juan de Ayala. His intention was to find out if there were any Russian settlements off the coast of California. Lived in 1775, the year before the American Declaration of Independence. He gave the island a name after the local birds, but the relevance of the name has since been debated. Whether the birds were gannets or pelicans, one cannot be sure. At least the pelicans still feel quite natural in the scenery of the bay.
When the gold rush began around the middle of the 19th century, it was decided to build a fortress on the island. The famous football team, the San Francisco 49ers, is named after the same gold rush phenomenon, although the team was not formed until about a hundred years after. The gold rush was once such an active series of events that the U.S. Congress identified Alcatraz as a suitable fortification site to protect the booming town. In addition to the fortress, a lighthouse was also built there. Pretty soon Alcatraz became not only a military activity but also a prison island when the first prisoners of war were driven to the scene. The United States had previously been at war with Mexico. During the Civil War in the 1860s, in addition to prisoners, cannons were transported to the island, although they were never used. The role as a prison seemed to suit the island better.
All of this had to be read in the books because I couldn’t strongly experience a sense of prison or even a military fortress, other than being helped. Rather, the island and its atmosphere were marked by the graffiti of the occupiers of the late 1960s and the ideas of liberation. The island had been closed since 1963 and was then suddenly occupied by representatives of the indigenous people of North America: they demanded better respect for themselves. In the same spirit, the island was also discovered by hippies and opponents of the Vietnam War. The conquest continued for more than a year and a half. During that time, the island and its buildings suffered severe damage in addition to the beating weather. The sand and smaller pieces of gravel creaked under my shoes as I thought about this. The sea roared about, and I listened to the guides ’stories of various escape attempts. The island felt like you had to get out of there. Perhaps that is why it was made a prison in the first place. After all, it is not large, only half a kilometer long and less than a couple of hundred meters wide. The main building, The Citadel, familiar from films and photographs, was completed in 1912. It rises on the island, not in any way majestically, as the building is, however, moderately small. Its most prominent part is, in fact, newer production and was built as an upgrade to the original military-related fortress. It thus began to function as a closed home for all kinds of villains, from mafia leaders to counterfeiters.
Inside the Citadel, I put the guiding headphones over my head and step into the echoing sound image, which is a mixture of the virtual echo and the palpability of Broadway, the most infamous middle corridor in prison. The landscape of the ear and eye gets momentarily confused, and I no longer know if I’m actually in a real life or hover in the intermediate space created by the virtual guide. The articulation of the former prisoner as a narrator is credible. I feel a little anxious. Tourist groups begin to wander guided by stories and virtual sound. There was a criminal in that booth, too. And Al Capone, and behold, there sleeps a dummy head made by the notorious Frank Morris, who escaped from prison. People take photos of cells and prison corridors. The bar doors crash theatrically as one guard-looking staff member demonstrates the insulation in dramatic sounds. The doors close mechanically and can be opened and closed in sets. The loudest bump is created when the doors of all the cells close at once. The sound of isolation.
Time started to transform and shifted its shape. Suddenly I realized how someone had slept in these same cells, opened their eyes, heard the doors open, and sensed the same subtle echo that still hovered ominously in the main hall of the prison. The walls of despair that enclosed time and turned humanity into timelessness. Because it was virtually impossible to escape from such a state, everything began to revolve around the escape. That’s it. Isolation is an escape.
I started paying attention to the surfaces. Because the place is in the middle of a bay with a cold wind blowing, salt pushing into the interiors of buildings and raw air testing everything man-made, it had begun to appear on various surfaces as beautiful traces. As wear, splits, mosses, fungi, algae and fluffy growth. Like northern lichen staining concrete. The surfaces began to speak and tell of hope. They started to look like their own miniature worlds and planets. Another surface could land on their surfaces, dancing on it, or at least forming its own momentary orbit on it. Had the prisoners seen the same thing? At least they had had time to see and imagine everything. Anyway, everyone was thinking about their own escape plan. The guards wondered how the prisoners would try to escape. Everyone was thinking of escaping.
Before gangsters began to be carted to the island, ideological prisoners were also brought in. During the First World War, Alcatraz served as a prison for conscientious objectors, for example. The best known of these was the author Philip Grosser (1890–1933). He became famous for his 32-page pamphlet, in which he spoke in detail about the grim conditions of the prison. The pamphlet is called Alcatraz – Uncle Sam’s Devil’s Island: Experiences of a Conscientious Objector in America During the First World War.
Grosser was an opponent of war and an anarchist. He defended the labor movement and was a supporter of trade unions. At the same time an enemy of the state. When Grosser was dead, his friend Harry Block wrote the following lines: Friend of the lonely, friend of the needy, lover of truth, hater of hypocrisy, irreconcilable enemy of the state, champion of peace, enemy of war, enemy of moneychangers, consistent disbeliever in private property, uncompromising indefatigable, fighter for righteousness. An Anarchist.
Grosser’s friends were American Russian anarchist Alexander Berkman and his beloved Emma Goldman, who was also a well-known revolutionary anarchist and feminist. So Grosser wasn’t quite an average prisoner. Perhaps that is why he was more able to write analytically about his imprisonment and not just think about escaping. Or it was influenced by the fact that Alcatraz was not yet a completely hopeless place at the time. In prisons, when one should try to act so that when released, a prisoner can return to being a functioning member of society, not a repeat offender. This was originally the thought of Alcatraz.
Before 1934, when Alcatraz turned into a hopeless rock fortress, military prisoners and POWs are said to have engaged in all sorts of cultivating and unifying things, such as gardening. They planted greenery to the east of the Fortress, mowed the lawn, washed the dishes, and even acted as babysitters for the Fortress civilian workers. According to contemporaries, the atmosphere was good. The prisoners wore white clothes. That somehow delighted local civilians. Although violence did occur, the original prison care program was considered a success. When the recession began in the 1930’s, the military could no longer afford such prison treatment, so military prisoners were transit to other prisons on the continent. The game changed and hardened. Alcatraz was seen as a suitable place for particularly violent and awkward prisoners. One of the visionaries was hard-faced FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. On August 11, 1934, at 9:40 a.m., the first batch of 137 prisoners landed on the island. Gangster leader Al Capone was among the first to be brought in. The former freedoms and unification were allowed to be forgotten when they were replaced by a principle whose core belonged: maximum control. Prisoners were promised four things only, food, clothing, shelter, and medication. Everything else was considered a privilege. Grosser’s book was influencing the island’s nickname, which was abbreviated to Devil’s Island. The name was already in active use when an attempt was made to escape from the island for the second time in 1937.
Escape No 1 Of ASPECTS OF ALCATRAZ (NFT)
The first escape attempt took place on April 27, 1936. It was a normal warm day in the Spring, with the highest temperature of the day around 60–70s on the city side, but the lowest of the day remaining only around fifty degrees. The island felt probably cooler, as always.
Austrian born Joseph “Dutch” Bowers, prisoner (AZ-210), was tasked with burning garbage. As he worked in turn at the prison incinerator, he suddenly decided to run, cross the fence on the edge of the island, and swim to the opposite shore. The attempt was already quite desperate from the start. He was shot because he did not follow the orders of the guards. The first getaway was immediately nicknamed “Desperate Escape” –a hopeless getaway that also has an echo of intentional suicide.
Escape No 2 Of ASPECTS OF ALCATRAZ (NFT)
The third getaway was violent, failed and again resulted in deaths. It happened in late May 1938. The Monday morning of the 23rd had begun with the usual routines of the prisoners. However, three prisoners, Rufus “Whitey”Franklin (AZ-335), Thomas Limerick (AZ-263), and James Lucas (AZ-224), decided to act and take the reins into their own hands: they killed the guard with a hammer tool in a woodwork shop located in the prison’s industrial building. From there, they continued their journey to the roof of the industrial building, where the guards surprised them. Franklin and Limerick were shot. Lucas, the third of the fugitives, decided to surrender.
Escape No 3 Of ASPECTS OF ALCATRAZ (NFT)
The third getaway was violent, failed and again resulted in deaths. It happened in late May 1938. The Monday morning of the 23rd had begun with the usual routines of the prisoners. However, three prisoners, Rufus “Whitey”Franklin (AZ-335), Thomas Limerick (AZ-263), and James Lucas (AZ-224), decided to act and take the reins into their own hands: they killed the guard with a hammer tool in a woodwork shop located in the prison’s industrial building. From there, they continued their journey to the roof of the industrial building, where the guards surprised them. Franklin and Limerick were shot. Lucas, the third of the fugitives, decided to surrender.’
Escape No 4 Of ASPECTS OF ALCATRAZ (NFT)
On the eve of Alcatraz’s fourth escape, January 12, 1939, in Europe, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had held fruitless talks in Rome, and an ominous sloth hung in the air.
Thousands of miles away in California, preparations were made for the first All-Stars match of the National Football League and an escape that would have been doomed to failure, even though it almost succeeded. The next day, the 13th, things began to happen. The prisoners Arthur “Doc” Barker (AZ-268), William Martin (AZ-370), Rufus McCain (AZ-267), Henri Young (AZ-244) and Dale Stamphill (AZ-435) were housed in Alcatraz’s most closely guarded unit, the infamous D-block. Anyhow, they managed to saw the bars of their dungeons and escape the building all the way to the shoreline. There, however, the guards spotted the fugitives and commanded a group of five men to stop. Three obeyed. Barker and Stamphill, who did not follow instructions, were shot.
Escape No 5 Of ASPECTS OF ALCATRAZ (NFT)
Nothing special was supposed to happen on Wednesday, May 21st. Unless the horrors of World War II, far removed in Europe and China, the everyday life of a California prison island lived in its own time. In 1941 the United States was still neutral and non-aligned.
Prisoners Joseph Cretzer (AZ-548), Samuel Shockley (AZ-462), Arnold Kyle (AZ-547), and Lloyd Barkdoll (AZ-423) had had enough of their immutability and hopelessness and decided to flee. They worked in the Alcatraz industrial area and decided to facilitate their escape by taking a few hostages who were local guards and officials. Among them, however, Paul Madigan managed to talk to the fugitives around and get across escaping from the island was impossible. Madigan later became warden of Alcatraz. Regardless, something was left to simmer as both Cretzer and Shockley would later try to escape again. That time with even harder grips and approach.
Escape No 6 Of ASPECTS OF ALCATRAZ (NFT)
Just under four months after the previous escape attempt, there was another escape bubbling under.
On September 15, 1941, John Bayless (AZ-466, later AZ-966), a 26-year-old prisoner, had been working on garbage and had a whim to escape. He managed to avoid the guards and get all the way to the shore at Alcatraz. He jumped into the water without any difficulty and went for a swim towards San Francisco. However, he realized the impossibility of his escape, the overwhelming power of cold water, and quickly gave up the attempt.
There were still enough escape attempts for Bayless. Namely, he later tried to escape the courtroom when appearing in federal court in San Francisco. The ends of the bricks were just too much for him.
Escape No 7 Of ASPECTS OF ALCATRAZ (NFT)
It took more than a year and a half before the next getaway. In the meantime, the United States had joined the war and was active, especially in the Pacific, where the balance had shifted in favor of the United States. April 14, 1943 was a normally warm and dry Wednesday in San Francisco Bay area. In Prison Island, James Boarman (AZ-571), Harold Brest (AZ-380, later 487), Floyd Hamilton (AZ-523) and Fred Hunter (AZ-402) managed to cut the windowpanes in the mat shop of an industrial building without the guards noticing. They found army uniforms that could serve as buoyancy and flotation aids. Next, they kidnapped a couple of guards, who they tied and silenced. They then escaped out the window towards the shore.
One of the guards managed to free himself and whistled. After hearing the shrill, the guards in the watchtowers opened fire on the fugitives who were already swimming. Brest was picked up from the water, but Boarman had time to sink beneath the surface. The body was never found. The third fugitive, Hunter, managed to land in a nearby cave, where he huddled for a couple of hours until the guards managed to find the cold trembling fugitive.
The fourth fugitive, Hamilton, was supposed to have drowned in the same firing squad with Boarman, but he was hiding in the same cave Hunter was captured. A couple of days later, he climbed back to the cliff, jumped into the mat shop from which he had originally escaped. There he was found to be captured the next morning.
Escape No 8 Of ASPECTS OF ALCATRAZ (NFT)
It took only two and a half months from the April escape, when the next one was already underway. Huron Walters (AZ-536) sat on his 30-year sentence for robbery and assault. He had had time to observe Alcatraz’s activities and noticed there were fewer guards on duty on the weekends. Even then, their attention turned more to the prison’s recreation yard.
On Saturday, August 7, 1943, Walters managed to sneak out of the laundry building where he mainly worked. He intended to run to the west coast of the island, jump into the sea and swim 1.4 miles, or 2.25 km, to San Francisco. In between, however, there were iron-wired security fences into which he should have cut openings to himself. Turned out the cutters he tuned did not work as desired and Walters had to climb over the fences. Time passed. He even injured his back after falling over another fence. He was caught on the shoreline before he even had a dip in the ice-cold water.
The next day, U.S. military troops landed in Sicily.
Escape No 9 Of ASPECTS OF ALCATRAZ (NFT)
The ninth escape is one of the most intriguing stories. It is usually heard the first thing when landed on the island. The story was certainly told because its meeting place was the very same most visitors first step into. Prisoner John Giles (AZ-250) had been at work on the loading dock where he unloaded army laundry brought to the island for washing and cleaning. Over time, one garment at a time, he pinched himself a whole uniform.
On Tuesday, the last day of July, 1945, Giles, wearing a full uniform, stepped onto the ferry, assuming he was on his way to San Francisco. Unfortunately for the fugitive, the ferry traveled to the neighboring island of Angel Island. At the same time, the disappearance of Giles was spotted in Alcatraz and all those moving in the bay area were checked. Giles, of course, was caught on Angel Island and was returned in his uniform back to the prisoner’s outfit in Alcatraz.
Escape No 10 Of ASPECTS OF ALCATRAZ (NFT)
Alcatraz’s tenth escape attempt developed into a violent incident. It has the nickname The Battle of Alcatraz. Some also know it as Alcatraz Blastout. It lasted a full three days, began on Thursday, May 2, 1946, and lasted until Saturday, May 4. The escape attempt had been taken by six inmates named Bernard Coy (AZ-415), already mentioned Joseph Cretzer (AZ-548) and Samuel Shockley (AZ-XXX), together with Clarence Carnes (AZ-714), Marvin Hubbard (AZ-645) and Miran Thompson (AZ-956). Of these, Coy had planned an escape and led the crowd.
The prisoners seized power for themselves. From the guards they stole the keys that allowed them to open the doors to the weapons rooms and cells. The aim of the group was to escape from the island with the prison’s own launch. However, to get on the boat, you would still need the key to the front door, ie to the recreation yard. Since it didn’t exist, they decided to fight it out, to occupy and clear the road to the harbor area.
The sextet held two guards as hostage, which they killed a couple of days later. Of the fugitives, Shockley, Thompson, and Carnes slipped back into their cells. Coy, Cretzer, and Hubbard, on the other hand, continued to fight, until death. Several guards died in the skirmish, and eventually the U.S. Marine Corps intervened and arrived on the scene, killing any fighting fugitives. In addition, 14 other guards and one bystander were injured in the fight. Shockley and Thompson were charged with murder, and thus, were sentenced to death in a gas chamber. The verdict was carried out in another famous Californian prison, San Quentin, in December 1948. Only 19-year-old Carnes in turn was sentenced to another life sentence and 99 years for kidnapping. He had received his initial verdict only at the age of 16. The bloody battle of Alcatraz has sparked numerous films and dramatizations.
Escape No 11 Of ASPECTS OF ALCATRAZ (NFT)
One Summer Monday, a prisoner named Floyd Wilson (AZ-956) disappeared from the shipyard. It was June 23, 1956. There was no more getting used to escape attempts and life seemed leveled, even inside the Rock.
Following a previous violent escape attempt and death sentences, no attempt was made to escape Alcatraz for ten years. It was due in part to the tightening of security measures and the reputation left by the fight. At the same time the United States was experiencing a strong boom. The previous Friday of the escape, Carol Morris from Nebraska had been chosen as the Miss Universe. She had previously been crowned Miss USA.
Wilson had gotten in his head to build a raft out of driftwood for himself and escape with it. He managed to hide for several hours in the middle of large rocks right near the shoreline. There Wilson was eventually found, and he surrendered. Though the escape attempt turned to be pretty tame, it again resembled of the hopelessness of the island.
Escape No 12 Of ASPECTS OF ALCATRAZ (NFT)
September 29, 1958 began as a typical Monday. Aaron Burgett (AZ-991) and Clyde Johnson (AZ-864) were sorting out the island’s garbage when they managed to surprise the guard. For a couple of years, no one had tried to escape the island, but Burgett and Johnson had become hopeful.
They intended to cross the cold bay of San Francisco with the help of inflated plastic bags. At their feet they tied wooden boards, whose function was to act as fins. The men made it all the way to the water, but the escape attempt was cut off with warning shots that were effective against Johnson. Burget, on the other hand, disappeared in a hurry. His floating body was found near Alcatraz two weeks after the escape attempt.
Escape No 13 Of ASPECTS OF ALCATRAZ (NFT)
Alcatraz’s 13th getaway is the most famous of the escapes. It might also be an escape that really worked out. Of course, there is no complete certainty about this, and it leaves a patina of uncertainty over the whole mystery. Brothers John Anglin (AZ-1476) and Clarence Anglin (AZ-1485) and Frank Morris (AZ-1441) took part in the escape. There is a fourth character connected to the escape, among others Allen West (AZ-1130, later AZ-1335), who is believed to have been behind the whole escape. However, most believe the escape was masterminded by Morris. This belief is likely to be reinforced by Clint Eastwood who acted as Morris character in the “Escape from Alcatraz (1979)”. West was left out of the crowd due to technical confusion and he was in his own cell the morning after the escape.
The date of escape is documented as Monday, June 11, 1962. However, the escape was not noticed until the morning of the next day, ie on 12 June. Fugitives were not believed to survive, but it was decided to rake the Alcatraz area thoroughly. In the next few days, things related to the escape were found in the surroundings, such as a paddle, the remains of a floating board, a wallet and a self-made life jacket.
Allen West was unsuccessful in his escape attempt and co-operated in the investigation, detailed the entire escape plan and received no charges.
The Thirteenth Getaway chipped a crack into the “Rock”, which began to expand with great publicity. An unresolved riddle began to plunge Alcatraz towards closure.
Escape No 14 Of ASPECTS OF ALCATRAZ (NFT)
The escape of the summer of 1962 had proved that Alcatraz could be escaped. The mystery was whether the fugitives survived or whether they were taken by the sea. The cold wavy bay of strong vortices is therefore a rational explanation for many: it cannot be overcome. Except that you can.
The escape of John Scott (AZ-1403) and Darl Parker (AZ-1413) proves that it is also possible to escape Alcatraz by swimming and almost surviving. On December 16, 1962, they managed to bend the bars of the prison kitchen enough to slip out and run to the shore. Their simple goal was to swim from island to continent. Parker was found less than a hundred yards from Alcatraz on top of a rock formation. Scott set out ambitiously to swim toward San Francisco, but the sea currents threw him toward the sea. He drifted under the Golden Gate Bridge to the beach, where he was found by a group of teenagers. Badly frozen Scott was taken to a military hospital before being returned to the island.
Alcatraz surfaces are worn and cracked. There are stories attached to them. Prison operations ended by order of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy on Thursday, March 21, 1963. The media was present as the last 27 prisoners stepped out of the dungeon. The last prisoner to arrive on the island was named Frank Weatherman. He received the code AZ-1576. He managed to settle into a house in December 1962, witnessed one escape and gave an immortal description of the island: Alcatraz was never no good for nobody.
Alcatraz had closed its doors. The next day The Beatles release their first album in the UK, “Please Please Me”. The time of liberation had begun.