Found this when I was looking for something else and thought I should give it home. It is from 2006, but still relevant, I think.
First seen through the eyes of a child while being yanked along the dock, hand gripped by the sticky paw of an older brother, Alcatraz was a neat building emerging between banks of fog. Birds screeched overhead, and people jostled on the boardwalk as I tried to catch a glimpse of that island trying to hide in the clouds. I have returned to San Francisco on various occasions, but had not ever taken the time to re-visit the elusive place. Opportunity struck at last on a rainy day in January. Having come to the city as a companion to my friend at work who had won another award for her phenomenal teaching, I found myself with a day alone before the events of the conference.
Alcatraz beckoned. The site of riots and mayhem, Civil War soldiers and political controversy, I was going to see it through the eyes of an adult. Consulting with the hotel staff for directions and particulars, I was thrilled to discover the National Park open for tours and easily reached with a quick cab ride. But, two miles was not all that far, I thought. Feeling adventuresome, I snugged up my Australian black raincoat, flipped my scarf jauntily over my shoulder, and headed off.
Anyone who has walked downtown San Francisco knows it is a journey through time and culture. Faces from the world exchanged silent greetings and riders on busses peered out of steamy windows as I peered into shops through the middle of Chinatown. It may have been January, it may have been raining, but I was on an adventure!
Contrary to the lugubrious warning of the concierge, I had no difficulty purchasing a ticket for the ferry ride to Alcatraz; the next boat left in ten minutes as I meandered to the dock. I was not the only one who had the idea to play tourist this Friday; surprisingly, the rain did not scare everyone away. There was, in fact, a decently substantial line waiting for permission to board. It seemed silly to stand in the rain in a line that was not going anywhere, so I found a spot across from the gate under a small overhand to wait. While watching the sheep in line, I chatted with a pleasant, good-looking gentleman. He agreed that the line was a needless thing. I had a ticket – I was going to get on the boat. First or last, passage was ensured.
My conversation partner happened to be a State Park volunteer – my sharp eye zeroed in on the patch on his hat – so small talk related to visiting the site, the view of the island, and, of course, the weather. Had I been before? No, Hard to see the prison through this haze! Yep, sure is. No, it’s not so bad, I have a good jacket. He was obviously friends with the vessel employee who smiled at both of us. She was dressed for the occasion in a bright yellow full-body rain slicker as she moved about the dock in preparation for our trip. Obviously, she had been through this scenario before. Get the people into a line, ensure their safety, let them on the boat when it is time. Wait a while and do it again.
Inadvertently, I had found the right place to stand, and the right company. When the time came for departure, I was graciously waved on board – in front of everyone in line. I felt very important with hundreds of eyes watching as I passed before them as if such prerogatives were always accorded me. I immediately stood a bit taller (ignoring the squelching of my Converse high-tops) and walked with great dignity and purpose. (The effect was somewhat diminished when I could not determine which boat to get on at the bottom of the ramp, but that is not truly relevant.) Once on board, and after the multitudes embarked, I found my companion once again. Having been an observer and participant o this tour numerous times, he was intrigued about the change in the type of person who came on the tour; we were dong some nonchalant people watching, and he recalled other trips he had taken in the past. Lots of families, as one would expect, but also couples who seemed more interested in each other than in the visit. That I was gallivanting about, a woman alone, was something, he observed, would have never happened in ‘his day’. I managed to amaze him, too, with the number of items in my travel satchel. (Being the packrat that I am, I can pack a lot into a canvas shoulder bag. Doesn’t everyone carry wallet, water, umbrella, cookies, books, writing paper and pens, phone, mittens, and maps with them everywhere?)
Alcatraz Island – destination achieved. Pulling up to the cement dock, the first building the traveler sees is the Barracks Apartments. Having been designated as a military prison in 1861, the original barracks, built in the 1860s, was added to in 1905. This structure became the housing for Correctional Officers and their families when the facility changed from an army prison to a civilian penitentiary – Building 64. This first view was less intimidating that I had expected it would be. Perhaps it was the gift shop underneath the “United States Penitentiary” sign obscuring the “Indians Welcome” graffiti. This is not to say that both the island and the facility is not imposing; the place carries a reputation that leaves a layer of awe through which the uninitiated spectator must peer. Nonetheless, I came to see the place – little did I know I would get more than I expected.
My welcome companion remained by my side – and what a boon this turned out to be! After the Park Ranger provided some general information, the pack of visitors disbursed in the designated directions – one path led up a fairly steep hill between the barracks and the guard tower. The ranger had omitted a small detail – there was a tram for those who felt the climb up the hill would be too strenuous. What a splendid idea! And something one can find out about when one has her own personal volunteer who was not interested in making the hike.
The tram wended its way up the hill in an extended ‘z’ pattern past undesignated structures to arrive at the cellhouse. This structure was built in 1907 after Alcatraz shifted from a defensive fort to a military detention barracks. It was built on the site of the army citadel. Within were “four cellblocks with a total of 600 cells, a kitchen, dining hall, hospital, recreation yard, and administrative offices.” According to the guide published by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, “when finished in 1912, the cellhouse was the largest steel-reinforced concrete building in the world.” Built by prisoners with materials and equipment shipped over on barges, it became the home for many of the prisoners who built it.
The army relinquished possession of Alcatraz in 1933 since it was too expensive to maintain and supply. In 1934, Alcatraz became a federal prison. Here was to be incarcerated “kidnappers, racketeers, and individuals guilty of predatory crimes.” Eventually, 1545 men would serve parts of their sentences on the island.
The public tour began at the cellhouse; one enters through old, institutional drab green doors. (I was reminded strongly of my elementary school days.) Above the doors hovers and eagle, the symbol of freedom, ensconced within a crest of plenty and patriotism. Within this Administration Building, I was informed I had been blessed with the company of someone very, very special.
“Do you know who I am?” he asked after drawing me away from the few visitors beginning the tour. Curiosity piqued, I shook my head. We exchanged a glance – mine of confusion, his of almost childlike mischievousness. Slipping out a badge previous hidden under his jacket, I learned that I had made the acquaintance of a very important individual. My interesting volunteer was, from 1955 to 1958, Alcatraz Correctional Officer John P. Hernan.
Wow. Was my friend back at the hotel going to be jealous! Mr. Hernan – Officer Hernan – occasionally visits his old stomping grounds when time and inclination permit. Today, I was privileged to enjoy his company and his remembrances.
So much of the inherent value of history is lost when it is distilled to the cold page of text. The humanity of daily transactions fades behind statistics and events; but not on this day. Returned to significance was the meaning for the individual, the reality of existence for one who made it happen. Reveling in the luck that brought me my personal griot, we proceeded to walk backward in time.
The cellhouse was composed of three corridors, three stories high, lined with jail cells. The older units were five feet by ten feet with a height of eight feet. They are so small that a man of average size could, by merely tipping back and forth, touch both sides of his cell. John shared with me this observation as well as the fact that for a good-sized man, changing the single, bare light bulb was a simple act of reaching up.
We traveled the corridors, peered into tiny, empty spaces intended to house men deemed incorrigible, and John told me of what it was like to walk these hallways when the cells were occupied. He spoke of the surreal quiet at three in the morning, darkness seeping in from cold walls, the only light coming from his flashlight. Counting heads, pacing the hall – time moved slowly in the wee hours of the morning.
It was easy to imagine such an experience listening to Officer Hernan, watching him pace off his steps and gesture as if there was once again a flashlight in his hand. The years melted away from his face and his back straightened and his shoulders spread. Volunteer jacket and cap morphed into the black of a uniform and I could hear the echo of his steps as if that was the only sound in the dark of night. In my mind’s eye, I saw the strong hand, fingers curled around the bars of a cell, and I also saw the sleeve of his garb. Beyond was not an empty space, but the tight rectangle of a space – the home for one man – once again occupied by an inmate sprawled across a metal cot, his tired eyes peering out at a guard, a tangible taste and smell of freedom he no longer had access to. With a shudder and a shake on my part, and a knowing smile on John’s part, my new friend and I continued on the tour.
Within the cellhouse was an area designated as a barber shop. Today there is not much left, but through John’s eyes I could see the chairs bolted to the concrete and easily visualize incarcerated men attempting to retain a shred of normalcy in such an aberrant place.
We continued through the building, smaller than I expected it would be, and entered the dining room. A very large, now very empty, room, the dining hall would have had about 200 of the 285 prisoners in it at one time. The men were fed three meals a day. Those not eating were the cooks and servers, those in the hospital wing, or those working in another part of the facility. There were no civilian workers – all the needs of the penitentiary were met by the prisoners themselves. Cooks, servers, gardeners, handymen, cleaning crew – whatever needed doing was done by the inmates. John spent shifts in the dining room supervising the inmates at their meals. He did not patrol the room armed as that would have been too dangerous. The temptation to abscond with a weapon would be too great for the desperate. Overhead used to be canisters of tear gas in case of active rebellion. These were not made use of during Officer Hernan’s stint as Correctional Officer. Luckily for him, his time there was essentially calm; the famous escapes and riots had occurred outside of his tenure.
John told me that the prisoners could earn money for working at the prison at the astounding rate of ten cents per hour. The money went to the government for safekeeping under the prisoners name until his final release. The only exception was if the man’s parents could prove destitution, in that case they could withdraw the funds.
Unbeknownst to me, the correctional officers during that time lived on the island. The first building seen was for those officers who had wives and children. The one “end of the island was fenced off for the security of the families.” Also available for the officers and families was “a recreation hall and officers’ club, complete with a dance floor, gymnasium, two-lane bowling alley, and soda fountain.” There was even a Wives’ Club on the island.
John lived in a building with the moniker ‘Military Chapel’ which was at that time reserved for the single officers. These apartments were spartan, but comfortable. There was one public phone on the island and competition for its use with the resident teenagers made courting his fiance a bit of a challenge. As well as pursuing romance, John also pursued his education traveling to the mainland for classes. It was fairly easy for the officers to traverse the bay as boats came and went each day delivering supplies and water as well as transferring personnel.
While I probably could have gotten much of this same information from the available audio tape or guidebook, the mental pictures created for me surpassed everything that could be revealed in a two-dimensional medium. To share the memories of one who was there brings a level of complexity unattainable in any other way. Students of history are usually limited by the technology of recording mechanisms available when history happens. Recent decades provide scholars and aficionados with myriad resources – but nothing will ever replace the visceral integrity of human telling human his story. Look in the eyes, see the half-smiles and read the messages of the body and the hands. That is true history – that is getting the real story – that is being part of an experience, or as close and one can get without having taken part.
I was honored to spend the rest of the afternoon with a new friend. Conversation wandered from Alcatraz to current topics. For me, the title ‘Correctional Officer’ lost its inhumanity and impersonality; it transformed from a faceless entity into a real man with real dreams and a life beyond the uniform.
I left the experience not just having seen an old prison, albeit a rather famous one, but having spent a night patrolling, guarding criminals at a meal, waiting in line behind a teenager to call my fiance, and having seen the place not as the crumbling hulk it is becoming, but in it s heyday as the model of forward-looking penology of the time.
“Discover Alcatraz: A Tour of the Rock”. Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, January 2004.
The National Park Service: Alcatraz Island Golden Gate National Recreation Area website at http://www.nps.gov/alcatraz. Last update [when this article was written] June 20, 2005.