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Alcatraz

Hatfield Hall
United States National Park Ranger Frank Hatfield stands in the center of a long Alcatraz Prison corridor between rows of grim cells. Alcatraz had the highest numbers of prisoners who committed suicide or went mad. Photo © by Ron Laytner

President Obama is closing Guantanamo prison in Cuba. Where to put the remaining 200 plus prisoners? Many suggest re-opening Alcatraz... What would it be like?

Listen to Frank Hatfield – He knows…

By Ron Laytner Copyright 2009 Edit International
Frank Hatfield Audio Clip
Frank Hatfield Tells the Story of The Birdman Of Alcatraz
ALCATRAZ ISLAND, CALIF. - Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to Alcatraz. My name is Frank Hatfield and I am a United States National Park Ranger and your guide… If you only knew who I really am. I was number 1296AZ, a bank robber and holdup man sentenced to 15 years on Alcatraz after taking two wardens hostage in escape attempts from other prisons. In the year 1775 a royal Spanish ship of war entered this harbor and named the island Isla de los Alcatraces — Island of the Pelicans. In 1850 the, U.S. Army built Fort Alcatraz here. Its cannon never fired a shot. In 1934, in the gangster era, America's toughest prisoners were collected and brought to the new federal maximum security prison just opened here at Alcatraz: Two railway prison cars bearing chained convicts arrived from Atlanta, Ga., and were barged across San Francisco Bay. Traveling across the U.S. handcuffed to a federal marshal, I didn't think much of where I was going. I just watched the scenery from my train window. People stared and I stared back, until they looked away. It wasn't until I boarded the boat for Alcatraz — leg-ironed and handcuffed — that I became frightened. I saw Alcatraz looming ahead and thought: "This is where I'm going to die." The prison stayed open from 1934 until 1963. In this period only 1,557 men passed through as prisoners. Other prisons such as San Quentin hold about 2,500 at a time. Alcatraz held only about 200. In other prisons it cost between $5,000 and $8,000 a year to keep one man fed, clothed and locked away. Alcatraz cost U.S. taxpayers $50,000 a year per man. Why? Because unlike other prison Alcatraz was not run by prisoners under guard supervision. There was no rehabilitation. Alcatraz was designed to deprive, deprave and punish men. In its almost 30-year life this prison had the highest per capita rate in any U.S. prison of men who went insane or took their own lives. Age made me give up crime, Alcatraz didn't. Prison only taught me more about crime. But today I find the thrill of crime gone. It just isn't worth it. I realize I've spent 25 years of my life in prisons in Kansas, Missouri, Virginia, Massachusetts and California. Now I'm a student at the age of 49, studying at the University of California at Davis, trying to get a doctorate in criminology, hoping to make something good out of my life. Alcatraz is my obsession. As a U.S. Park Ranger I take tourists through the prison. I’ve been told not' to identify myself as a former inmate, but if I could only let them know what it was really like — the misery, the brutality, the dehumanizing process that went on inside Alcatraz. This large building was built by the Army as a chapel for the soldiers. The Bureau of Prisons converted it into a shooting range for guards. They laughed when we shuddered at the sound of trifle and machine gun fire. "We're getting ready for you," the guard would say. Thirty-nine men tried to escape from this island, which is surrounded by icy waters and dangerous currents and riptides. Six were machine-gunned to death in the bay, five disappeared, never to be seen again, and the remainder were recaptured alive. Did the missing men make it? Or do their bones lie somewhere around the base of the island? - This ruin was the warden's mansion. It was destroyed, by Indians who occupied Alcatraz in 1969. It had 16 rooms, redwood floors and paneling, the finest furniture federal funds could buy and two full-time servants, low-risk convicts sent in from other prisons. For all this the warden paid $28 a month. No man was ever paroled from this island. He either died here or was sent to another prison. Some were well known: Al Capone, Robert F. Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz), Alvin Karpis of the Karpis-Ma Barker Gang, Machine Gun Kelly, who stayed 17 years, Floyd Hamilton, former partner of Bonnie and Clyde, and Morton Sobell of the Rosenberg atom spy case. Floyd Hamilton visited last summer at the urging of his family. It was a mistake. All the memories flooded back. He left an old and heartbroken man.... Mort Sobell was my very close friend. We walked the yard together, played chess and had long discussions. Mort was physically weak. Young convicts often challenged him. But we all protected Mort because he was a stand-up convict, a righteous guy. He wouldn't give evidence against his aunt and uncle, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who died in the electric chair for passing atom secrets to Russia. Mort's out now and lives in New York City. He's trying to put his life together, I wish him well. Here at the beginning of the cellhouse was the visitors’ room. Prisoners sat inside the cellhouse looking at their visitors through a plate glass window in the wall and talking to them over a bugged telephone. I married in 1954. I loved my wife, but she got a divorce when I came out to Alcatraz because she thought I’d never get out again. I loved her enough to tell her to get the divorce. When Alcatraz closed in 63 I served out my remaining time in Leavenworth. I got out in 1972 and found that she'd married a doctor in New York City and had two girls. We're still friends but we don't correspond anymore. Her husband didn't like it. A few weeks ago I went into my old cell for the first time. It was a shattering experience. It all came back, those six long years. I remembered the days and nights I had lain there and listened to the foghorns and seagulls at night screaming over the cellhouse. The loneliness, defeat, the feeling that no one cared about me. It all came back and I cried. When a man died on the island he was shipped home or buried in San Francisco. But they had to make sure he was really dead and not trying to simulate death. A doctor came, examined the body, proclaimed him dead and signed the death certificate. Then he injected air into the heart through a long needle. The body was handcuffed, leg-ironed, sewn into a bag and sent under guard to a mortician across the bay. This is the most important part of this tour — segregation and isolation, the punishment cells of Alcatraz. A man loses his razor blade — one year in isolation. A man takes food out of the dining room — isolation. Too many cigarettes in a man's cell — isolation. A man uses the hot water he was given to mop the floor with to wash or shave instead of using the icy-cold water provided for personal cleanliness — isolation! Out from segregation twice a week — once to shower and once to exercise alone in the yard. No communication with anyone. The prolonged isolation, sometimes five years or more, caused a number of men in these cells to commit suicide by hanging themselves with their bedding. And yet these were the good punishment cells. Others were much worse. They threw me into cell 14, maximum punishment, for ten days. I'd written home that six convicts had crippled themselves, cutting through their Achilles tendons to protest conditions on Alcatraz. I was called before the assistant warden. I told him he was a degenerate monster. He locked me in the dark. The walls, ceiling and floors of maximum punishment cells are of solid steel. There were no blankets. It was icy cold. The men were thrown in naked. They had no sink, no toilet, nothing but a drain hole in a corner. To survive they slept on the floor in a crouching position so the steel would not absorb their body heat. These men were not allowed out of their cells at any time, either to shower or to exercise. So a man in for, say, 97 days didn't shower or shave for 97 days. It was in these dark and silent cells that most of the men went mad. Many contracted rheumatoid and arthritic ailments. Men being released who had spent long times in total darkness had their eyes bandaged before coming out to avoid serious eye damage. To avoid risk of riot, Alcatraz prisoners were fed very well — meat, potatoes, gravy, vegetables, salad, salad dressing, bread and coffee. Men in maximum punishment cells were given the same food. Sounds great! Except theirs was all run through a blender at one time and served as a rotten, cold mush in a. paper cup shoved through a slot. Until 1941 this prison was on the silent system. No talking in the cellhouse, no talking in the dining room. But one morning 200 men went into the dining room and just began to talk. There were only 42 punishment cells so the administration wisely decided that from that day on Alcatraz would be a talking prison. But prisoners had talked before. Each man had a toilet in his cell that was flushed with sea-water. Scooping the water back into the drain pipe behind the bowl until it was dry; a prisoner held a blanket over his head and bent into the bowl. He "talked" up the pipes to other cells. It was a party line — a party line interrupted from time to time by some unthoughtful soul who flushed his toilet. I liked crime. It was challenging, stimulating and rewarding — a shortcut to success without education. I couldn't imagine myself with a lot of kids staying home watching the boob tube with a can of beer. I traveled the world, had permanent suites in hotels in San Francisco, Hollywood, Toronto and London. I lived for a time in Florence, Italy. The FBI said I spent more than $780,000 in stolen money in just one year. I had women, beautiful, exciting ladies, and several identities. For a time I was Baron Mark de Rothchild Bamberger. I was also Mark Hathaway of the shirt family fortune, and a professor on sabbatical. When they caught me for the last time in Sacramento, Calif., in the State Capitol building, I was carrying a forged diplomatic passport, the credentials of a CIA agent and a pistol with a silencer on it. Foolish and over-confident, I’d joined a group going in to meet the governor of California and was caught by a metal detector. Going out this doorway toward the prison industries shops, you are going to get the most spectacular view you have had since arriving on Alcatraz. There is Belvedere Island, Tiburon, Sausalito, the Golden Gate Bridge and the great City of San Francisco. This is the view the prisoners had each day going to and returning from work… It broke our hearts. To see the City of Fun just a mile across the water, the beautiful girls in bathing suits on sailboats passing by, to hear the sight-seeing captains describe us as the, most dangerous men in America. At night many of us cried ourselves to sleep. For more than a year the Park Service has been asking what should be done with Alcatraz. Some say give it back to the Indians, make a bird sanctuary out of it, a gambling casino, a statue of St. Francis or a Statue of Liberty West. Most want it to stay with the Park Service. What do you think? It's a big change for me wearing a uniform and a badge. I have less money now than I've ever had; sometimes there's not much to eat in my refrigerator. But there's something honorable about it. I have never felt the lure of going back to the gun. Offers of crime have come, but everyone knows now that Frank Hatfield has straightened his hand. My primary concern today, the reason I'm going to school, is that I believe prisons are a total failure. Alcatraz is the ultimate failure. What existed on Alcatraz until it was closed exists in prisons all over the United States today. That's where the value of Alcatraz lies. It should be shown to everyone especially children. It might save them from a life of crime. Thank you ladies and gentlemen. Your tour of Alcatraz is over. I'm sure you'll agree it's the best $2 value in all of San Francisco.
By Ron Laytner Copyright 2012
EPILOGUE My story made Frank Hatfield famous. The last I heard of him was that he had been hired as a bodyguard-chauffeur by Playboy's Hugh Hefner. Tours on Alcatraz are now $38.

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