I recently visited Alcatraz Island, home to the infamous federal penitentiary that once housed the likes of Al Capone. The catalyst was @Large, a series of site-specific installations by artist/activist Ai Weiwei, but of course I toured the entire island as well.
At the end of a quick, scenic ferry ride, we glimpsed the island campus with the water tower and power plant on the right:
This building once housed barracks and apartments. The graffiti is a reminder of the Native American occupations of 1964 and 1969:
The ruins of the Post Exchange/Officers’ Club:
The Model Industries Building:
I’d never set foot inside a prison. My closest experience to this was checking out the prison cells on the battleship USS Alabama and the submarine USS Mobile, both now stationed in Mobile. So, the scale of this facility was rather daunting and made me feel more than a little claustrophobic:
This was considered a very modern and comfortable prison in its day:
A few cells are staged to show how prisoners personalized their spaces with sentimental objects and evidence of their hobbies. Here, the cell of a budding artist:
The Rock, as the island is also known, was originally a military fort. From 1934 until 1963, it was the federal prison housing the most difficult-to-manage prisoners, who were prone to violence or considered flight risks. The idea was to concentrate and isolate the worst inmates in a remote location. Alaska had been considered, but Alcatraz was ultimately chosen, putting prisoners within sight of freedom in San Francisco:
These cage-like spaces seemingly go on for miles:
Floor damage from an escape attempt:
The last breakfast ever served in the prison cafeteria, on 21 Mar 1963:
The remains of the Warden’s House:
Alcatraz Island is a fascinating, multi-faceted place. It’s a wild refuge within sight of San Francisco, as well as home to numerous birds — “alcatraces” is Spanish for “seabirds.” @Large by Ai Weiwei is on view until 26 April 2015.
But, the remains of the prison are the biggest draw, explained through an audio tour that combines first-person accounts from prisoners, guards and even a woman who lived on the island as a child. I learned a lot and wish to never be this close to prison life again.
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