'Alcatraz' author Michael Esslinger: Why a prison fascinates us
With a new TV show focused on the famous penitentiary, author and historian Michael Esslinger debunks some of the most enduring Alcatraz myths.
Almost five decades after the last prisoner left Alcatraz Island, "The Rock" still has the power to intrigue.Skip to next paragraph
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We still don't know what happened to the four prisoners who escaped and swam for freedom across the bay. We do know, however, that some of the country's most vicious criminals spent years behind the stone walls of the Alcatraz federal penitentiary, tempted and tortured by an amazing view of San Francisco skyscrapers and the lives they left behind.
The mystique of Alcatraz has attracted plenty of authors and filmmakers, and now a TV show is ready for its close-up. "Alcatraz" debuted on Monday on the Fox network, featuring a plot about long-dead prisoners reappearing in the modern day. And – surprise! – they're up to no good.
Michael Esslinger, an author who lives in Monterey, Calif., is one of the prison's most devoted historians. His book Alcatraz: A Definitive History of the Penitentiary Years tracks the island's most notorious decades.
In an interview this week, I asked Esslinger to ponder the prison's eternal appeal, debunk a few myths, and speculate about what happened to those freedom-bound escapees.
Q: Why does Alcatraz have such a unique place in American culture and history?
A: When Alcatraz opened in August of 1934, it was considered America’s Devil Island, and it was touted that no one could escape alive. It was intended to turn the spectacular criminal dispositions of America's most notorious criminals into a world of decorum. The Alcatraz regimen demanded more than simple conformity. Silence and cramped cells were the foundation, along with stern discipline, an unrelenting routine, and a set of rules and regulations that shaped most every aspect of daily life on the Rock.
The Rule of Silence was heavily enforced during Alcatraz’s infant years as a federal penitentiary. This was the Alcatraz trademark, and proved to silence the voices of some of America’s most notorious outlaws.
Q: Was Alcatraz prison famous from the beginning, or did events and its prisoners help it become more well-known in its early history?
A: The foundation of Alcatraz’s notorious reputation was set in stone from the very onset.
The inmates sent to Alcatraz were considered the cream of the criminal crop, and many were a new breed of outlaw that the government had failed to contain. They were comprised of the famous, infamous, unknowns, and were not only bank robbers and murderers, but organized crime figures that orchestrated complex crime syndicates where corruption was boundless and infiltrated even the most sacred levels of law enforcement.
A ticket to Alcatraz was not necessarily based on one's crimes against free society. Recruitment to Alcatraz was a model with no specific prototype or criteria as to what would initiate a transfer. Generally space was reserved for inmates who were prone to escape, high profile, difficult, unruly, badly behaved, or simply created delinquency challenges for the prison staff in the federal prison of their confinement.
Q: What are some of the biggest myths about Alcatraz? What do people misunderstand about it?
A: The biggest myth is that Alcatraz was depicted as a horrific prison, but the vast number of inmates I interviewed state it was likely the best. It was clean, had good food, and although small, a private cell was something to be cherished.