On our trip to San Francisco, we decided to visit Alcatraz. We could see the hunk of rock sticking out of the bay from the ferry wharf. We walked the path up to the prison, the pink and purple flowers that budded from the bushes up the path hung over us like exotic lampshades. I took photos of the old rusted buildings, a wooden cottage painted white with Easter egg-green shutters, and a shed with the same Easter egg-green doors, a white-painted brick house with a yellow corrugated tin roof with windows sprouting out of it, the windows overlooking the fog rolling over the calm sea.
We were led into the main building, the cell blocks, the kitchen, through to the shower room. The showers were in the middle of the room, with the communal soaps still in their dishes. The guide explained to us that this is where most of the inmate murders and suicides would happen, the rapes, so that there would have to be guards watching over at all times. He told us that Alcatraz was the one prison in the United States that had hot showers so that the prisoners would not get acclimatised to cold water and be tempted to enter the frigid San Francisco Bay and swim ashore to freedom. Not that there weren’t attempts; there wasn’t one that was successful.
Seeing the view from up there, from the yards, the San Francisco skyline was glimmering just across the water. It seemed a swimmable distance. In the meal hall, the sun shone through the window as the fog settled in. There was an old man sitting on a stool, wearing a brown coat with his white hair combed. His shoes were polished, and in his coat pocket was a handkerchief. He wore glasses attached to a chain around his neck. He had a microphone, and had come to speak about his five years in prison. He recounted that he’d been “a rough kid who got into fights,” and once he hit his opponent too hard, resulting in his death.
The floor opened for questions. He described the meals in prison (slop) and what Al Capone was like (he kept mostly to himself). Someone asked whether he felt bad for what he did, to which he replied yes, he felt bad. A man asked what he did when he got out, and he responded that he got a job, tried to live like a normal person and that it was hard, but it was better than his life here. That he wanted to forget his life here, that he blocked most of it out, and that when he was here, he mostly just kept his head down and ticked off the days until his release.
A man with round glasses asked whether he learned his lesson, whether jail rehabilitated him. “This isn’t rehab,” he said. “This is doing time. This is giving away a piece of your life. If I did get fixed, it wasn’t jail that did the fixing.”
Afterwards I walked down the halls of cells listening to the audio recording we’d been handed on arrival. On it, a guard recounted the escape that happened in 1960, when three inmates killed three guards. They exercised during the night, starving themselves so that they could fit through the bars of their cells. They began a riot, overpowering the guards and taking a gun. They did end up escaping, swimming out into the sea, but they were never found. The guards on the tape were sure that they had drowned, but the old inmates on the tape seemed more hopeful. They said that they had been learning Spanish, and maybe they were in Mexico now, living free in shacks by the beach with the love of a good woman and a couple of kids.