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The secret rule of the harshest prison on the planet

AmericaAlcatraz prison isolated in the middle of the sea is a harsh detention place, specializing in “treating” the most difficult prisoners, the terror of those who intend to escape.

In 1775, the first time he set foot on the island, a Spanish explorer named this rugged island “La Isla de los Alcatraces”, which means Pelican Island. Three-quarters of a century later, the 13th President of the United States, Millard Fillmore, turned the island over to the military and it became the site of the first lighthouse on the West Coast.

Because of its isolated, fortress-like terrain, Alcatraz quickly became a safe place to store cannons, military ammunition, and dangerous criminals. As early as 1861, the military used it to hold prisoners of war from the Civil War. By 1906, San Francisco and the state of California were using the island to house civilian prisoners.

In 1933, the US Department of Justice bought this 9-hectare island and officially turned it into a Federal Prison. Alcatraz is dedicated to the “hardest” inmates at other federal prisons. It has been dubbed the “last prison” for the worst of the worst, “with no hope of reform” or “the harshest prison on the planet.”

Alcatraz Island is just 2km from San Francisco Bay.  Photo: Britanica

Alcatraz Island is just 2km from San Francisco Bay. Image: Britanica

Alcatraz, also known as “The Rock”, is located just 2 km from San Francisco. The waters surrounding it are quite icy, ranging between 4-10 degrees Celsius, with strong ripples. This, along with bars, strict rules and heavily armed guard towers, make the prison a deadly haunt for prisoners who want to escape.

Alcatraz’s main detention area is a 150-meter-long concrete building. In 1910, when it was built at a cost equivalent to $7 million today, it was considered the longest concrete building in the world at that time.

Alcatraz has 336 cells 2.7 m long, 1.5 m wide and 2.1 m high, each with a crib, a basin and a toilet. At the busiest time, this place also only has 302 prisoners, ensuring each person a separate room, minimizing fights and escaping prison.

The four rights accorded to each prisoner are: clothing, food three meals a day, shelter and medical, dental, and psychiatric care. Additional rights are available to prisoners of good behavior, including going to the library, playing softball or baseball, going to church, listening to the radio, watching movies in the auditorium, and playing chess, checkers or dominoes.

One reason prisoners wanted to be transferred to Alcatraz was that the food was good and they ate as much as they wanted. The menu since 1946 features stewed fruit, cereal, milk, bread and coffee for breakfast. Lunch, the biggest meal of the day, consisted of soup and beef, pork with vegetables, bread and tea, boiled corn, and apple pie. Dinner also includes meat, soup, vegetables and bread with fruit, cake or fruit jelly for dessert.

Alcatraz prison kitchen with the daily menu posted on the board.  Photo: The vintage news

Alcatraz prison kitchen with the daily menu posted on the board. Image: The vintage news

This was the idea of ​​the first warden, James Aloysius Johnston. He argues that bad food leads to irritable and riotous inmates. But the most luxurious thing in this most notorious prison is the hot water faucet. No prison in the United States at that time granted prisoners this privilege, prompting many people in other prisons to sometimes apply to be held in Alcatraz.

But they don’t know that this humanity is a tactic. Everyone knows that the sea surrounding the island of Alcatraz is as cold as ice all year round. Getting used to warm water will reduce the idea of ​​escaping. Or even if they tried, they would soon freeze to death from heatstroke.

Warden James Aloysius also recognized that many people go to prison because they do not have the skills to do honest work, so proposed the Department of Justice that inmates be able to take correspondence courses offered by the University of California. Inmates can choose from 19 different courses, from Elementary English Literature and Elementary Algebra to Poultry Breeding.

The prison management believes that inmates always need work, otherwise they will get bored and become aggressive. They can help with cooking and cleaning and dock maintenance. But the vast majority worked in a large factory on the island, making things like shoes, gloves, rubber mats, brooms, brushes, raincoats and furniture, similar to today’s prisons. They also helped repair buoys used in the bay, and during the Second World War they performed their patriotic duty as cargo nets for the Navy.

An inmate at Alcatraz repairs and dry cleans uniforms for Army Command, San Francisco, California, August 1943.  Photo: The Vintage News

An inmate at Alcatraz repairs and dry cleans uniforms for Army Command, San Francisco, California, August 1943. Image: The Vintage News

Many Alcatraz guards chose to live on this very island. Rent is cheap, travel time is short and they are allowed to bring families. This means children live in close proximity to some of the country’s worst criminals. 100 children grew up in Alcatraz, some were even born there. They had a childhood playing baseball, flying kites, roller skating.

The only difference is that if they’re on the playground and the alarm goes off, the kids have to run straight home and are banned from owning a toy gun. They even socialized with inmates, waving or talking to them as they picked up trash or fixed the water pipes in the guards’ houses. One said she even had some notorious criminals fix her shoes and sign her name on it.

In addition to all these pleasantries, Alcatraz has a particularly strict set of rules. Guards will check-in 13 times a day to prevent escape attempts. At first, prisoners were not allowed to talk, even mumble to themselves, but in 1950, the regulation was abolished.

When they do not follow the rules, inmates will be sentenced to solitary confinement in block D, 7-19 days. But the worst was being locked in a small, steel-enclosed room, with no light and no toilet, no mattress, nothing but a small hole in the floor for the garbage. The prisoners who were brought there had to take off their clothes and were given only one meal a day with very poor food.

Another measure was that at night, when all the prisoners were getting ready to go to bed, the guards would line up on the yard or rooftop, shooting in succession at the dummies arranged everywhere. They call this a basic shooting exercise, but it is actually a deterrent to those who want to escape.

After shrill bullets at night, inmates would wake up in the morning to find hundreds of dummies with holes in their heads, eyes, and chests, piled up in the yard, what they called “a mental obsession “. In popular culture, Alcatraz has been listed as one of the top 5 “haunted” places in California. In addition, this place is also famous for prisoners committing suicide, killing guards and killing each other.

Among the most famous prisoners in Alcatraz must be mentioned the most notorious gangster boss of all time, Al Capone, “America’s number one public enemy”. The reason his brother was sent to Alcatraz was not because he was “impossible to reform”, but because he used money to manipulate the entire prison system of the previous incarceration, Atlanta. At that time, Al Capone bribed all the guards and received many privileges in return, including the constant number of visitors.

Al Capone's luxury cell at the Atlanta prison, where he splurged money to manipulate guards.  Photo: Fine Art America

Al Capone’s luxury cell at the Atlanta prison, where he splurged money to manipulate guards. Image: Fine Art America

Arriving at Alcatraz, he proved to be all handicaps, but was unsuccessful, on the contrary, was assigned many heavy tasks. But when he rested, he was still able to provoke and fight with his inmates.

While serving more than four years in Alcatraz, Al Capone begged prison guards to allow him to form a small band, consisting of 12 people called “The Rock Islanders”. They practice during the week at the barbershop, and sometimes they give concerts on Sunday afternoons.

Al Capone played the banjo, tenor guitar, and mandolin, then wrote a handwritten letter to his son, excitedly boasting that he had learned to play 500 songs. He even composed his own music, with a love song titled “Madonna Mia,” which was posted after the postscript in 2009. Al Capone was released from prison in November 1939, living in Miami until his death. died in 1947 at the age of 48 of syphilis. One of the letters Al Capone wrote to his son, later sold at auction for $62,500, 2016.

Everyone knows that Alcatraz is the most secure prison in the United States, so most prisoners want to obediently serve their sentences and go out. In the 29 years the prison has been in operation, only 36 men have participated in 14 escapes. None of them were successful. However, 23 people were caught red-handed, six were shot dead on the spot, and at least two drowned and froze in the bay. The other bodies were never found.

Attempts to escape most famousmade into a movie Escape from Alcatraz with the participation of Clint Eastwood. The three inmates used simple tools such as spoons, coins, and electric drills made from stolen vacuum cleaner motors to cut the concrete around the vents.

Fire exits lead up through an exhaust fan; the inmates removed the fan and motor, replaced them with a steel grate, and left a shaft large enough for the prisoner to walk in. On their beds, they place paper dummies, sticky with hair stolen from the barbershop.

Drilling the wall under the washbasin, concealing it with clothes, the three inmates created human hair and paper mannequins, fooled the police, and escaped.  Photo: History

Drilling the wall under the washbasin, concealing it with clothes, the three inmates created human hair and paper mannequins, fooled the police, and escaped. Image: History

Over the course of weeks, the escapees also stole 50 raincoats and built an inflatable raft. On the evening of June 11, 1962, they escaped through a vent in the roof and left Alcatraz. No one knows if they made it to shore alive or not.

“In the 17 years we investigated the case, there was no credible evidence that the three inmates were still living in the United States or abroad,” the FBI said. However, the US Justice Police vowed to continue investigating until the inmates are identified as dead or until they are 99 years old.

Alcatraz eventually fell into disrepair and saltwater erosion. This, along with operating costs, led Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to order the closure in March 1963.

Later, Alcatraz was reopened as a public museum, San Francisco’s main tourist attraction, attracting about 1.5 million visitors annually with ticket prices ranging from $25-41 depending on age.

The island’s thrilling history has been the subject of hundreds of movies, books, songs and TV shows. Its fame even extends beyond the United States as the island location of the Duel Tower in the Japanese anime series, Yu-Gi-Oh!, was inspired by the Island of Alcatraz, and is called “Alcatraz” in the Japanese version.

Hai Thu (According to The Vintage, History, LATimes)

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