This is how you were to be greeted by a correctional officer in Alcatraz… I had a lot of questions going thru my mind last weekend while I was pacing the corridors of the most famous prison in the world Alcatraz, also known as The Rock, in San Francisco Bay, California. How would I design the maximum-security prison in the world? What would you design? Where would you design such a prison? What are the esthetics criteria for a prison? Do the prisoners deserve the elegance and stunning architecture that we all try to accomplish in every project? And so on…
From the mid 1930′s until the mid 1960′s, Alcatraz was America’s premier maximum-security prison, the final stop for the nation’s most ruthless inmates. If you go there today, you will be taken by boat just as the prisoners did. The only difference is that you’re guaranteed a ride back! There is little vegetation or anything else to make staying there hospitable. It was a perfect match for its function. While on the island, the views are amazing. I had a chance to explore the parts of the prison that are still open for visitors.
There were 336 cells in B & C Block and each cell was 5 feet by 9 feet. Cells at Alcatraz had a small sink with cold running water, a small sleeping cot, and a toilet. Most men could extend their arms and touch each wall within their cell. Two cells on the end of C Block were used as restrooms for the guard staff.
The cells in A Block were only used a few times for (rare) short-term lock-up periods when an inmate did not require full solitary confinement seclusion but needed to be fully isolated from other inmates. Otherwise, A Block was used solely for materials storage.
There were 36 segregation cells, and 6 solitary confinement cells in D Block (also known as the Treatment Unit). These were more spacious, but still the least popular.
The single Strip Cell, otherwise known as the “Oriental”, was a dark steel-encased cell with no toilet or sink. There was only a hole in the floor for the inhabitant to relieve himself, and even the ability to flush the contents was controlled by a guard. Inmates were placed in the cell without clothing and were put on severely restricted diets. The cell had a standard set of bars with an expanded opening through which to pass food, and a solid steel outer door that remained closed, leaving the inmate in pitch-black darkness. Inmates were usually subjected to this degree of punishment for periods of only one to two days. The cell was cold, and the sleeping mattress was only allowed during the night and was taken away during the daylight hours. This was considered the most invasive type of punishment for severe violations and misconduct, and it was genuinely feared by the general population inmates.
“The Hole” was the nickname given to a similar cell type that made up the remaining five dual-door cells on the bottom tier. The Hole cells contained a sink and a toilet as well as a low-wattage light bulb. Inmates could spend up to nineteen days in this level of isolation, which was also considered to be a severe form of punishment by general population inmates. The mattresses were taken away during the day, and the inmates were left in a state of constant boredom and severe isolation. Guards would sometimes open the small window in the solid steel outer door, to allow in a little light for inmates who were serving their time in solitary peacefully.
Each prisoner would be assigned their own cell, and only the basic minimum life necessities would be allotted, such as food, water, clothing, and medical and dental care. The prisoners’ contact with the outside world was completely severed. The inmates were never even allowed to explore the cell house. They would be marched from one location to another, always in a unified formation.
If you are curious about inmates’ daily routine between 7:00 to 21:30, you can find it here.
In these conditions, you might wonder what the inmates mostly complained about. The answer is “the rule of silence”. In the earlier years of Alcatraz, inmates were not allowed to talk to one another except during meals and recreation periods. Some inmates commonly emptied out the water from their toilets and created a primitive communications system through the sewage piping. This rule was considered harsh and inmates were disciplined for even minor violations of this code.
Inmates also state that the island was always “cold”. Most agree that cells on their higher tiers with window views were more popular since they tended to be warmer than the ground-level cells.
I also felt cold even though I had layers of clothing. It was a strange feeling being inside a famous prison that you read about it and watched in the movies. I think I was even scared a little bit! That evening I was having dinner in the comfort of a warm restaurant across the Alcatraz. I couldn’t help but think that years ago the lights I was dining under were the lights of freedom for some….