Weber State University Magazine Spring 2013 : Page 24
A mile and a half off the craggy coast of San Francisco lurks a sinister chunk of sandstone with a reputation as chilling as the wind-whipped waters from which it rises. For thousands of years, Native Americans avoided the desolate, 22-acre isle believing it to be cursed. From 1934 to 1963, Alcatraz Island was home to America’s most notorious outlaws — incorrigible criminals whose rebellion at other institutions earned them all-expense-paid stays in the maximum-security prison nicknamed “The Rock,” “The Isle of No Return,” “The Ring of Fire” and “America’s Devil’s Island.” Inmates were sent there to learn how to follow rules. T hey were sent there to be broken. karin hurst, university communications 24 wsu magazine | spring 2013 photo courtesy of jayeson vance
Parkman Of Alcatraz
A mile and a half off the craggy coast of San Francisco lurks a sinister chunk of sandstone with a reputation as chilling as the wind-whipped waters from which it rises. For thousands of years, Native Americans avoided the desolate, 22-acre isle believing it to be cursed. From 1934 to 1963, Alcatraz Island was home to America’s most notorious outlaws — incorrigible criminals whose rebellion at other institutions earned them all-expense-paid stays in the maximum-security prison nicknamed “The Rock,” “The Isle of No Return,” “The Ring of Fire” and “America’s Devil’s Island.” Inmates were sent there to learn how to follow rules. They were sent there to be broken.<br /> <br /> Yet, according to Weber State alumnus and U.S. National Park Service Ranger <b>Jayeson Vance ’70,</b> time served as a federal penitentiary is only one chapter in the Alcatraz saga. Vance has led tours on the island for more than a decade and calls Alcatraz “a layer cake of history.” He says while most people know that Alcatraz Island was the site of an infamous prison, very few realize that the nation’s first Pacific Coast lighthouse was located there; that it was a Union fortress during the Civil War; that it took center stage in a protest that ignited modern Native American activism; and that it is now considered an ecological preserve.<br /> <br /> <b>Uncanny Connection</b> <br /> <br /> Vance never intended to work at Alcatraz, but his personal connection to the island is uncanny. “It’s as if all my schooling becomes relevant and all my interests come together on Alcatraz,” says Vance, who studied history and psychology at Weber State. As an interpretive ranger, he prepares historical presentations. “And with Alcatraz,” he adds, “you also have the psychological aspects of crime and punishment, isolation and remoteness, and then redemption of the soul.” <br /> <br /> Vance cut his acting teeth as “Malcolm” in a Weber State production of Macbeth. “Leading tours is theater in a way,” he says, “because you’re standing there on a little podium with a microphone, and you have to know how to keep people interested or they’ll just wander away.” Vance loves nature and says visitors are often surprised to discover stunning views, lush gardens and rare wildlife habitats on Alcatraz. His wife, Judy, is even related to the famous artist who made the tiles used in the warden’s house.<br /> <br /> <b>“Rock” of Ages</b> <br /> <br /> The Alcatraz story began with the 1848 discovery of gold along the American River. Suddenly, hordes of treasure hunters headed to San Francisco. A lighthouse was built in 1854 to help them arrive safely.<br /> <br /> To protect the mineral-rich Bay Area against possible foreign invasion, the U.S. government blasted the island’s unyielding rock, erected steep, stone walls and built a sturdy, three-story brick citadel with rifle-slit windows. During the Civil War, Fortress Alcatraz became a military prison where deserters and thieves were hobbled with heavy chains and iron balls.<br /> <br /> As the country expanded westward in the late 1800s, American Indians were routinely imprisoned on Alcatraz Island. A January 1895 article in the San Francisco Call described the arrival of “murderous-looking Apache Indians.” (They were, in fact, 19 Hopi leaders from Arizona who had resisted government attempts to force their children into boarding schools.) With thousands of troops passing through San Francisco during the Spanish-American War, the prison’s population grew and another complex was hastily constructed.<br /> <br /> In 1912 a large, reinforced concrete cell house was built to replace two flammable wooden structures. The island became a minimum-security disciplinary barracks in 1915, with a new emphasis on education and rehabilitation. The Army transported soil to Alcatraz and taught prisoners how to garden. In 1924, the California Spring Blossom and Wild Flower Association donated 100 pounds of nasturtium and poppy seeds, and 300 trees and shrubs to beautify the barren landscape.<br /> <br /> Alcatraz entered its most unnerving phase in 1934 when the Army left the island and handed custody of its 32 worst offenders to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Over the next 29 years, a veritable Who’s Who of public enemies crammed into claustrophobic 5-foot by 9-foot cells. Troublemakers were isolated in the darkened D Block, or “The Hole,” where 30 inmates allegedly Lost their minds. Thirty-six men (including two who tried twice) staged 14 separate attempts to break out of America’s first maximum-security civilian penitentiary; 23 were recaptured, six were shot dead, two drowned and five were never heard from again.<br /> <br /> By 1963 Alcatraz had become too costly to operate. One lawmaker told the U.S. Senate “an inmate could be boarded with less expense in New York’s Waldorf Astoria than in Alcatraz Penitentiary.” Attorney General Robert Kennedy pulled the plug.<br /> <br /> <b>From Prison to Park</b> <br /> <br /> During debate about what to do with Alcatraz, a group of Native American activists arrived there on Nov. 9, 1969, and claimed the island in the name of “Indians of All Tribes.” Their symbolic occupation lasted 19 months before fizzling shortly after the 13-year-old stepdaughter of a charismatic leader fell three floors down a dilapidated stairwell to her death.<br /> <br /> A Texas oil heir wanted to turn Alcatraz into a shopping mall, but instead, the island became part of the newly created Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) in 1972. Administered by the National Park Service, the GGNRA is considered one of the largest urban parks in the world.<br /> <br /> Alcatraz tours began on a trial basis one year later, despite objections from officials who feared they would glamorize criminal behavior. Former Bureau of Prisons Director James V. Bennett declared, “There’s something completely incongruous about young children running in and out of Al Capone’s cell.” <br /> <br /> Today, Alcatraz Island is the Bay Area’s second most popular tourist attraction. On any given day, more than 5,000 people shuffle through the maze of 102-year-old prison walls. Tickets sell out weeks in advance. Vance believes part of the lure is morbid curiosity aroused by Hollywood movies that sensationalize tales of quirky inmates <i>(Birdman of Alcatraz)</i>, ingenious breakouts <i>(Escape From Alcatraz)</i>, and brutal prison guards <i>(Murder in the First)</i>.<br /> <br /> Yet despite its astonishing popularity, the future of Alcatraz is uncertain. The facility is disintegrating and federal funding cutbacks may limit repairs. Then there’s Mother Nature’s tendency to torment the strange little island. “One of our concerns is climate change,” says Vance. “We’re probably looking at a 6- to 12-inch rise in sea level in the next 10 years or so, which may threaten some of the historic structures.” <br /> <br /> In the meantime, Vance happily continues his workday routine — fielding questions about forts, fights and phantoms. If Alcatraz Island really is a layer cake of history, it seems the history buff from Weber State just can’t seem to get his fill.<br /> <br /> <b>Did you know?</b><br /> <br /> Despite claims that no one could survive a swim from Alcatraz to the San Francisco shore because of sharks and dangerous currents, Anastasia Scott, 17, made the crossing as a publicity stunt in October of 1933. (In 1955 at age 41, fitness guru Jack LaLanne did the same thing, only handcuffed!)<br /> <br /> While attending Weber State College, Jayeson Vance was known as Clark Walker. He had his name legally changed after moving to San Francisco in the 1970s at the height of the city’s Erhard Seminars Training (est) movement. The intensive, 60-hour, est human potential workshop encouraged participants to disengage from the past and adopt a new sense of self.<br /> <br /> The curious escape of 1962 is still an open case. A U.S. marshal is currently trying to track down a letter postmarked Honduras purportedly written in the 1980s by escapee John Anglin — officially listed as missing and presumed drowned.