'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.

Courtesy of National Archives
The famous prison Alcatraz was actually probably the best place to be incarcerated, says author Michael Esslinger, with its decent food and cells much valued by its inmates.

Almost five decades after the last prisoner left Alcatraz Island, "The Rock" still has the power to intrigue.

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.

Prisons like Leavenworth, Atlanta, and McNeil Island were considered much, much worse.

It was a harsh prison though. The views and sense of a bustling city just outside their windows made it a painful reminder of all things lost.

Q: What are some of your favorite things you've learned about Alcatraz while researching your book?

A: My favorite things are some of the redemption stories concerning many of the inmates. As has been the case with many of the former inmates I’ve interviewed, their paths to redemption are generally very profound, and some of these men later became friends of mine.

I believe that redemption stories are the best kind. If someone's lost their way or made more mistakes than society deems acceptable, but looking to make things right, I always find myself cheering that person on. I'm not supporting what they've done or making excuses for them, but hoping that they'll find a way to be better and make right those things in their past. 

There are also many layers to the history of Alcatraz. I love the family stories and memories of the children whose fathers worked on the island.

Q: Tell me about the most influential and best books about Alcatraz (other than your own, of course). Which are your favorites?
A: "Escape from Alcatraz" by J. Campbell Bruce. It’s a wonderful book and is responsible for helping sustain the interest in the famed 1962 escape. "The Birdman of Alcatraz," though not entirely accurate, is an amazing story of people living in the extreme and the longing to be free again.
 Q: What can you tell us about "The Birdman of Alcatraz" book? I've heard over the years that the story in the movie isn't accurate. Is that true, and how did the book fit in?
 A: The story was mostly a dramatized version of actual events and people. Much of the information within the book and movie was based on insight from Stroud’s brother Marcus.

The Hollywood version of Robert Stroud portrays him as a martyr of the American Penal System. Those who knew him well saw him as a manipulative and homicidal psychopath.

Q: Did women – those who lived there on the island, visitors, anyone else – play a role in the history of Alcatraz?
 A: I expect yes, but it’s likely one of the important stories yet to be written about the history.

Q: And finally: What do you think happened to those escapees? Is there any chance at all that they survived?
 A: While I don’t believe the real inmates enjoyed a Hollywood ending, I think we all deeply wish that they made it to South America and, like the final scene in the "Shawshank Redemption," you want to believe that they lived happily ever after, sanding and restoring their old wooden boat on the beach.

The facts of the case suggest otherwise.

Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor to the Monitor’s books section.

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