Doing Time

Alcatraz, La Isla de los Alcatraces, Island of the Pelicans, stands about 1.25 miles off the coast of San Francisco. It seems so easily accessible but in actuality is as remote as any offshore island can be. The freezing waters of the San Franciscan Bay together with its strong currents made it an ideal place to house America's most hardened and determined criminals. As the Con's quotation goes - 'If you break the rules you go to prison, if you break prison rules you go to Alcatraz'.

When early Spanish colonisers discovered the Bay Area sometime in the 16th century, the island was indeed home to large numbers of pelicans, so large were their numbers that when a cannon was shot across their bows the noise of the frightened birds taking wing was likened to a hurricane. One can only imagine the numbers of birds involved, even allowing for some fancy in the written accounts. Sadly no pelicans nest on the island today.

It must have been a bleak place to serve time; so close to civilisation, but no closer in reality than the moon. Only three people actually escaped from the prison, immortalised in Clint Eastwood's movie Escape From Alcatraz, although their fate was uncertain. Did they drown in the unforgiving waters of the bay, or did they manage to make landfall and wend their way to South America? Nobody knows. What seems clear is that the famous movies with the prison as a subject matter, Birdman of Alcatraz, The Rock and the aforementioned Mr Eastwood's epic, depict inmates in an heroical light. The reality is quite different; inmates were hardened criminals, psychopaths, murderers, violent individuals that fully deserved their incarceration. Spencer Tracy, Nicholas Cage, Clint Eastwood they were not: malevolent, murderous, bitter and twisted they were.

But the prison is no more, it closed in 1963. High maintenance costs associate with the wear and tear inflicted upon it by decades of extreme weather hastened its demise. The Rock was abandoned and once again left to nature. Now it is run as a National Park with thousands of visitors catered for every day, eager to get a taste of what incarceration on the Rock was really like. The answer is bloody awful! Extremely cramped cells, no privacy, stripped of dignity and out of sight and mind of the rest of humanity. Perhaps they deserved it, but it is hard not to feel a pang of regret that such things had to be. The thing that struck me though was that even amongst the most antisocial and hate filled minds, the need for some connection with nature was strong. One prisoner took it upon himself to make a garden on the bare rock, transporting and spreading by his own hand tonnes of soil. He built a greenhouse out of old window frames begged from the prison guards and grew flowers from seed. Today, In full spring bloom it was a delight; it became a haven for inmates as well who would linger there on their way to complete other chores. The human spirit needs to have some link with the natural world or it will wither and die.

Part of the Alcatraz experience nowadays is to have a look at the returning birds and other animals. Various National Park employees were dotted around counting pairs of nesting gulls and cormorants, letting interested people have a look through their scopes and generally informing them of the work going on. The fortunes of the birds seems on the up after a couple of bad El NiƱo years. Brandt's Cormorants covered flat slabs of rock and the concrete jetties; Western Gulls were everywhere else. A small colony of mixed Snowy Egrets and Black-crowned Night Herons occupy a cluster of shrubs and small trees whilst a pair of Great Blue Herons were tending their nest high in a eucalyptus. Ravens, Song Sparrows, Pigeon Guillemots and Blackbirds completed the avian cast and an information board told us that small mice on the island have evolved a colourway to match the grey of the concrete covering most of the site.

Alcatraz is a monument to inhumanity, suffering and pain, but as will always be the case, nature is healing the wounds and soothing the scars.





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