Cruel and unusual punishment.

On occasion, we Americans get genuinely serious about convincing the world that most of us were dropped on our heads at childhood by careless mothers, and one standout example of this behavior was the Volstead Act of 1919 which prohibited the sale (if not the consumption) of booze. This quite exceptional piece of stupidity lasted until 1933, creating in the process several American dynasties whose fortunes were made through bootlegging. Whatever the downside of our modern legalized system of corruption known as ‘political donations’ at least it should ensure that no such foolishness recurs. “All control drives up price” the economists teach us, and Prohibition set about proving that in a big way. That little dictum also avoids mention of criminality, which thrives on that which is prohibited.

When the tax authorities finally got to doing the job the FBI could not, namely catching many of the bootleggers, they used tax evasion as the crime, and hang the multiple homicides. A place was needed to lock these capitalist opportunists away and America set about converting its former military prison on Alcatraz Island to a civilian gaol, which rôle it served from 1934 through 1963. It was opened to civilian incarceration just as Prohibition was repealed, but still did a number on the likes of Al Capone and Mickey Cohen, both of whom served time there for tax evasion. Both became popular heroes as a result. The small matters of drug running and the prostitution rings these fellows ran were somehow lost on the public at large.

So in preparing our son for a trip to ‘The Rock’ the other day, I made sure to fill his head with tales of Big Al and speakeasys, finally splashing out on the tickets.

If ever there was a place which set out to administer cruel and unusual punishment, then it has to be Alcatraz. Despite the fairytale setting with views of San Francisco to die for, every effort was made to shield these from inmates’ eyes, and the high walls, minuscule cells and dim windows seem almost calculated to enhance the insane mental cruelty of the place. “An eye for an eye”, appears to have prevailed over the US Constitution and the Eighth Amendment which has it we should behave like civilized people, not like savages. Oh well.

Alcatraz is now a federal park and is in poor shape. Despite the large tourist revenues, it’s being allowed to fall into disrepair, with the sea air speeding matters along. Why, for example, would the magnificent Governor’s Mansion and the Officer’s Mess be gutted, roofs gone, exposed to the elements?

I’ll let my snaps do the rest of the talking, all on the D700 with the 16-35mm lens:

The Golden Gate.

The Officers’ Mess.

Where uniforms for the armed forces were made.

Armored glass.


Showers. Don’t drop the soap.

The cells.

Winston Hofler, my son, in Al Capone’s cell.

Love, freedom, escape.

Atop the staircase from the exercise yard.

Cynically named ‘Broadway’, the main drag.