Dossier
| Exiles of the Golden Gate

Here's a first-person visit to the army prison by an artillery lieutenant, from The Illustrated American, Jan. 19, 1895, pg 66-68

Not long ago I visited a prison placed on a lonely rock in the heart of the bay of San Francisco, a place where military convicts are confined. The rock is so barren and small and the water around it so deep and full of dangerous eddies that it seemed a useless precaution to have armed sentries to tramp about after the men as they worked On making the circuit I perceived that there is but a single accessible landing place in the whole circumference of the rocky island.

The summit of the island is crowned with fortifications and engineering works in various stages of completion and repair quarters for officers and men, batteries, magazines, casemates and storehouses. The grass was growing bright and green wherever its roots could find soil for nourishment, and higher up around the top of the rock, near the citadel and officers’ quarters, in little garden spots artificially made by bringing earth from the mainland, were blooming in profusion poppies geraniums, heliotropes, fuchsias and calla lilies. The strong growth of vegetation on the eastern slopes, which receive the early sunshine and are protected throughout the day from the fierce breezes that blow in from the Pacific, present an agreeable contrast to the bald, verdureless surfaces on the side of the Golden Gate.

All of the prisoners were dressed in suits of coarse gray cloth, cut in the same pattern as the uniforms worn in the army, with heavy laced shoes and black hats banded with a cord, the color of which indicated the class to which the convict, by virtue of good behavior or otherwise, had been assigned. When he is first received he is placed in the second class and a blue band placed on his hat. If his conduct during the first three months is good, he is promoted to the first class and exchanges his blue hatband for one of red If on the contrary, he commits any serious breaches of military discipline he is degraded to the third or lowest class and his halo changes its color from red to yellow. Convicts of the first class, whose conduct has been good for a period sufficiently long in the opinion of the Commandant, are granted additional privileges and indicate this fact by wearing a white cord in the centre of the red band.

Any convict who escapes, or who attempts to escape when recaptured is obliged to wear a ball and chain for three months.

All of the prisoners, with the single exception of Skolaskin who will be told of later, were formerly soldiers in the different regiments stationed along the coast—the First Infantry the Fourth Cavalry, the Fifth Artillery and others. The offenses vary, but the most common is that of desertion. The terms of imprisonment run from six months to eight years According to a recent code of punishment enacted by Congress, a. definite punishment is prescribed for each specific military offense; and the offenses usually committed by soldiers seldom demand a punishment exceeding two years.

Dishonorable discharge is a concomitant of the sentence of all convicts sent to the prison. As this new punishment code is well understood among soldiers generally, every one of them, when he commits a crime, knows what treatment to expect if he is caught and convicted. Terms of imprisonment of less than six months are ordinarily served at the post where the company of the offender is stationed and are awarded for the minor offenses—continued drunkenness petty larceny, breach of the peace and such; but the longer terms, for continued desertion and offenses known under the common law as crimes, are served at hard labor at the prison—which prison is decided by the department commander; but he usually designates the nearest one to the post of the convict, and this for posts west of the Rocky Mountains is Alcatraz Island.

When a prisoner is received at the prison he is placed in a reception cell, minutely searched and deprived of everything except his clothing. Then he is taken to a bathroom, washed and clad in the prison dress, his hair cut close to his head and his beard and whiskers trimmed. His clothing, such as it is, is renewed as often as may be required. It is marked on the back of the blouse with the letter "P" and his prison number, and he is forbidden to wear a watch chain, ring, or other ornament. Reports against prisoners for violations of prison discipline are made in writing to the Commandant, and each man is given a week, after the appearance of the report, in which to furnish an explanation, if he has one to offer. Punishment usually takes the form of forfeiture of good conduct time, of which a prisoner is allowed to accumulate five days for each month of satisfactory deportment, except when he is serving in the third class. Corporal punishment, or any punishment for violation of prison rules beyond reduction to the third class and confinement in the dungeon or forfeiture of good conduct time, is not permitted.

Prisoners of the first and second classes are not required to preserve silence when working except when it interferes with the performance of their labor. Third-class prisoners, on the contrary, are required to keep silence, are deprived of the privilege of the library, are required to march in the prison lock-step to and from their work, and are locked in their cells whenever not at work or at their meals. The prison regulations make it very advantageous for men to keep out of the third class, yet there are always some in it; and for all cases of mutinous conduct, disobedience, obtaining liquor, repeated violations of rules, or any continued impropriety which indicates a bad disposition, a man is sure to be awarded the yellow halo and the silence of the damned.

Desertion is the crime for which most men are sent to the prison, and for the offense, if you are interested enough to ask them, they assign various reasons, all to the effect that they prefer to take the chance of fate as to recapture and fly to ills they know not of than to resign themselves and bear the ones they feel are inflicted upon them. Some tell of severe daily labor of a class not properly included in military duty imposed by post commanders; others of the tyranny of noncommissioned officers; others of both these afflictions coupled with inferior diet in the mess room. None of them ever attempt to claim that military duty itself is ever a good cause for deserting. A great many claim that the prison fare is better than what they received in the company mess before they deserted, and yet it is compounded from the same ration that is furnished to the army at large. Some, on being asked how they were able to make this statement, replied at once, "Poor cooks and company savings." It is rare that a company is favored with a good cook—that is, one who likes his duty and who can prepare the ration palatably and economically. When such a one is found his company commander is anxious to get him out to drill, and he is soon taken from the kitchen and his place filled by his assistant, who is then considered competent to perform all the duties of a professional mess cook after a brief two months' apprenticeship! Then, too, a few company commanders starve their men in order that they may hoard up a goodly company fund, which was never intended to accumulate, but to be used for the comfort and happiness of the men.

Occasionally old soldiers are seen terminating a checkered career in the prison, usually for offenses committed while in a condition produced by a nautical fondness for the "marine glass" and "schooner." These old fellows relate the happy services of their former days with tears in their eyes and often submit applications for clemency based upon long and faithful enlistments under the flag; but it usually turns out that all the clemency they deserve has been extended before they ever reach the prison.

The prison chaplain stationed at the island maintains a kindly supervision over their spiritual welfare, leading them into the chapel for a friendly talk on weekdays, singly or in pairs, and on Sundays stirring them collectively, morning and evening, by homilies set to prayer and music.

In the library is a well-assorted collection of standard books, histories, text-books, works of fiction and reference. On Saturday afternoons, Sundays, and in the evening until nine o'clock, prisoners are allowed to read and otherwise amuse themselves there. On Christmas eve an additional relaxation is permitted in token of respect to that festal season. A stage is arranged in one end of the library and there-upon is produced a theatrical entertainment, with a bill of attractions that the most cynical critics would be forced to comment upon with favor. As you find among these prisoners all sorts and conditions of men, you find also the ill-starred actor and the broken-down musician; and these, with a support selected from among the rest, are only too happy to have a chance afforded for entertaining their friends with dramatic scenes which are not ill-starred and with musical strains which do not break down.

Skolaskin, whose name has been mentioned, hobbles in and shakes his black braids over his back when he perceives that the time to laugh has arrived, with as much keen enjoyment as if his former lodgings had been at the Lotus Club instead of among the pine boughs of an Oregon forest. He is a captive Indian from one of the northern coast tribes, a sort of medicine man, oracle, or dreamer, and furthermore a helpless cripple. It is said that he was in the habit of inciting the members of his tribe to make war against the whites, much as Sitting Bull used to do among the Sioux, so that finally General Gibbon sent a detachment out after him and made him a military prisoner. This was about two years ago and his deformed hulk, cramped and drawn out of shape by rheumatism, has been seen crouching about in the sunny corners of the prison ever since. The officer who captured him told me once that he found him riding his pony, quietly and alone, and that he made not the least resistance against being taken into custody, having no suspicion of the captivity that awaited him. When he saw7 before him the crippled old man, physically unable to resist had he desired ever so much to do so, he was ashamed of his mission, and sending back the armed men he had with him, he went forward alone to arrest Skolaskin in the name of the Government. And here the old Indian remains, separated from his children and his family, unable to speak the language of the prisoners around him or to stand erect and enjoy the same amount of freedom that they do, without sentence and without term, without trial and without conviction, a captive at the will of the Government.

The traditions of the island are not numerous—I mean of the kind that can be believed, for people tell you a great many that are not worth listening to; nevertheless it cannot be doubted that after the various geological changes to which the island owes its form were complete, the birds were the first in-habitants and a great many of their descendants still dwell here. There are swarms of gulls, divers, pelicans and loons, that scream and lay eggs about the island on the bare rock, making the most noise on Sundays during service on a bald, rocky projection under the chapel windows. The island was formerly known as "Bird Rock," and the very name " Alcatraz" means pelican, hence the name "Alcatraz's" or "Pelican's" Island. A sea captain who visited the bay in 1843 states that the island was then covered with seals; therefore it is probable that the seals held the island for some time under a lease. General Fremont's heirs claim that he next obtained possession of it, and they are still fighting the question in the courts; but the United States occupation began in the year 1846 and has continued without much regard to prior claims ever since. As to murders and such, every room in the citadel claims to have witnessed at least one, and some boats two or three. I spent the night, not long ago, in a room where a young surgeon had only a few years ago murdered his wife and then killed himself; but such things are not surprising, for there is scarcely a hotel in the world that is as old as this building that cannot relate the same uncanny happenings.

Escapes are rare and when they do happen it indicates an immense amount of assurance and cleverness on the part of the prisoner. The few who have attempted to escape by swimming or by floating away on rafts have either been drawn beneath the water and drowned, or have drifted out to sea and been picked up in a half dead condition by passing vessels. Those which are successful occur from the working parties that are sent to the mainland. Not long ago, as the steamer was returning on its evening trip from the Presidio to the island, one of the prisoners managed to change his prison clothing for a suit of civilian's dress while the other prisoners were crowding around him, and as the boat was taking on the working party at Fort Mason he walked up the gang plank without being recognized by the guard and was seen no more. Not until his clothing was found lying empty on the forward deck of the steamer was the escape discovered. The McDowell was turned around and the facts reported on shore to no purpose; the prisoner's calculations succeeded so well that he has never been recaptured.' Two others, on plea of violent illness, gained admission to the hospital, which is not guarded. That night, about ten o'clock, an attendant, entering the ward, found only their prison clothing and their empty cots. The alarm was given and the cage locked, but the birds had flown. It was afterward ascertained that a boat had pulled alongside the wharf at the hour for extinguishing lights and the prisoners had sufficiently recovered from their illness to tiptoe out of the ward and slip down to meet it. They were no doubt ashore and lost in the city before the escape was discovered. Once in the city, that is the end of the matter, for the reward of thirty dollars offered for recapture is not enough to make detectives hunt their legs off after them. Occasionally one is shot while attempting to escape, as happened a few days ago at the Presidio. The man watched until he thought he had a good chance to run without being perceived by the sentinel and made a rush, but he was not good at dodging bullets and the second one the sentinel fired took effect in his back. The next morning a coroner's jury found the facts as stated and exculpated the sentinel from any taint of crime, as he had given the necessary warning before firing.

ALVIN H. SYDENHAM
Lieutenant, United States Artillery