Written by Rashad Abdallah

American incarceration practices have perhaps never been under more scrutiny than in modern society. The seemingly brutal, discriminatory, and mal-intended nature of the American prison system serves as a rallying- cry for protestors of societal inequality.

However, certain prison research studies conclude that much of the truly oppressive and daunting nature of American prisons stem from environmental characteristics instead of morally corrupt officials. Thus, presenting a new agent that is responsible for the less than desirable societal implications in modern prisons. In keeping with this innovative interpretation of prison sociology, a careful look at the origins of the relationship between American environmental manipulations and incarceration efforts is necessary.

These roots inevitably lead to a case study of Alcatraz Island, which catalyzed many of the modern norms in the American prison system. This infamous island permeates historical scholarship via its role as a Civil War fortress, United States Penitentiary, and Native American refuge. Furthermore, the very existence of Alcatraz Island is representative of environmental manipulation that forever impacted prison practices in American society.

In addition, careful study of the evolution of Alcatraz Island’s natural environment illuminates the complex relationship between government institutions and the territories they utilize. As knowledge of the island’s environmentally pure roots in Native American culture ingeniously contextualize Alcatraz’s storied contribution to modern American civilization.

In many ways, Alcatraz Island is responsible for the evolution of the modern prison system via its unprecedented environmental manipulation that has seen this geographic landmark oscillate between roles as a Native-American refugee and government-based defense mechanism.

In order to competently understand the environmental manipulations that transformed Alcatraz into the vanguard of America’s prison legacy, one must juxtapose the island’s more docile native roots. Despite the government correctional tool that Alcatraz was destined to become, the Native Americans whom initially engaged with the island perceived it as a food surplus, escape from foreign missionary efforts, and a natural seclusion area.

These inherently peaceful views of the island sharply contrast the modern schemas around Alcatraz and its brutal history. Prior to American occupation, Alcatraz Island was inhabited by members of the Ohlone tribe that spread throughout much of California’s north coast. The Ohlone viewed Alcatraz Island’s close proximity to the San Francisco mainland and its rock-based geography as an environmental wonder that held sacred importance.

Therefore, the Ohlone paid deference to the bird populations that inhabited the island, connecting to Alcatraz’s origins in the name “Alcatraces,” meaning land of the pelicans. This respect for the natural inhabitants of the island permeated the cultural folklore and customs of the Ohlone, as their society felt that Alcatraz served as both a resource and watchdog over their tribe.

Furthermore, the Ohlone peoples’ engagement with the island paled in comparison to the future environmental manipulations catalyzed by the United States government. The Ohlone operated under the assumption that it was their role to maintain the island and utilize resources that did not alter Alcatraz’s sacred structure.

These functions consisted of utilizing the island for individually desired seclusion, a territory for excess food storage, and a hiding area for people resisting missionary initiatives. In return for these environmental resources, the Ohlone tribe nurtured and maintained both the abundance and safety of Alcatraz Island’s indigenous bird populations.

It is this mutually- beneficial relationship between Alcatraz and the Ohlone people that made the United Stats government’s gradual erosion of their agency of the island in the middle of the 19th century rather egregious. California historian, Richard DeLuca bluntly characterizes this transition in Alcatraz ownership as

“Alcatraz’s native people were removed from their land in a manner similar to that experienced by Indians in other parts of the country, but within a time period and geographic pattern unique to Alcatraz’s capabilities.”

These environmental capabilities that made Alcatraz sacred to the Ohlone, would provide the American government with an answer to many of their combat and defensive plans.

The preliminary purpose of Alcatraz Island following its occupation by the United States government centered around its geographic appeal, rock-based functionality, and general environmental potential in terms of the American Civil War.

Alcatraz became a United States Army Civil War outpost in 1861 to safeguard against a Confederate Army attack of the western United States. The island’s selection for this massive responsibility in the war effort stemmed from the natural location of Alcatraz. Located roughly one mile off the coast of San Francisco, Alcatraz perfectly aligned with the current American governmental initiatives of manifest destiny and the economic obsession of the California Gold Rush.

Part of Alcatraz’s Civil War mission even consisted of serving as a reconnaissance safeguard against foreign enemies attacking California gold reservoirs. However, despite the natural military capabilities of Alcatraz’s location, the island’s physical environment was not ideal for these various governmental initiatives. Therefore, the initial waves of environmental manipulations began to alter Alcatraz into an island foreign to its Native American roots.

The most impactful of these renovations was the defensive perimeter on the Civil War fortress consisting of 105 cannons. These cannons dramatically altered the geographic edges of Alcatraz Island, as its perimeter became sharp and short in order to promote long range visibility.

This defensive exterior of this island was complemented by equally notable military changes made to Alcatraz’s internal composition. San Francisco historian, Benjamin Franklin Gilbert, outlines these components as

“At this time Alcatraz was a prime fortress garrisoned by 120 soldiers with a belt of encircling batteries, a massive brick guard house, and a barracks, three stories high, with accommodations for 600 men.”

This was representative of a stark evolution from the island’s original natural habitat that supported an indigenous bird population and migrant native tribes. Furthermore, the pelican habitat that defined the island’s native legacy became virtually non-existent amidst Civil War renovations. The environmental manipulations of Alcatraz Island did not target the bird population for elimination; however, their vast exodus became a symbol of the lost roots of this landmark.

Despite the massive federal investment in Alcatraz Island as a Civil War fortress, the base saw no combat action in the American Civil War. Instead, the island’s military purpose sought to maximize Alcatraz’s environmental uniqueness.

Due to the secluded and hazardous nature of the newly adapted Alcatraz, it became an ideal location for military prisoners and malcontents. The United States Army began to utilize Alcatraz Island as its foremost military correctional location as the American Civil War neared to end.

Combined with the inaccessible perimeter of the Alcatraz, the island’s rock-based interior provided unmatched potential for prison cell formation. The United States Army commissioned the creation of dungeon like basements and above ground cells throughout the island, which transformed Alcatraz into a military prison.

In addition, the success of Alcatraz as a military prison proved too valuable for the American government to abandon after the base’s decommissioning in 1933; therefore, President Herbert Hoover catalyzed legislation that created United States Penitentiary Alcatraz in 1934.

Two main reasons stood at the forefront of this policy decision, as the United States government viewed a federal prison on Alcatraz as a solution to malcontent inmates and prison escape artists throughout the country.

Furthermore, it was the natural environment of Alcatraz that seemingly solved these two structural issues in the prison system, as the isolated, cold, and hazardous nature of the island had already proved capable of emotionally crippling hardened inmates. However, the American government still ushered in a second wave of environmental manipulations before Alcatraz could be transformed from a military installation into America’s foremost supermax prison.

These adaptions consisted of dividing the island between its northern and southern wings. The southern wing of the island was largely curtailed in an environmentally cruel manner of placing San Francisco in the vantage point of the island’s cellhouse. In sharp contrast, the northern wing of Alcatraz was transformed into small village that would come to symbolize the penitentiary’s environmental legacy. As one can only understand the environmentally deplorable circumstances of the Alcatraz prison population, after learning of the picturesque village that sat adjacent to it.

Accompanied by the infamous prison environment, Alcatraz Island harbored a rather idyllic familial village population between its 1934 to 1963 United States penitentiary years. Due to the relatively small staff and arduous working hours of the Alcatraz correctional faculty, a village was built on the north side of the island as a convenient alternative to a ferry-based commute.

The village was constructed with a mission to make Alcatraz as environmentally friendly as possible for families of penitentiary staff. These characteristics including leisure sites, close-neighboring townhouses, and most notably a beautiful garden pasture that divided the island. The famous Alcatraz gardens were a clear geographic separation between the families of northern Alcatraz and the deplorable prison life.

One of the families occupying this village was that of Arthur M. Dollison, who served as Associate Warden of Alcatraz from 1961 to 1963. Dollison’s daughter, Joylene Babyak, recounted her childhood experience on the island as

“largely positive, I never felt as if I lived on a prison. I suppose as a child all I saw was how beautiful my home was, I used to feel lucky because I lived on this exotic island and my classmates lived in a crowded city.”

Babyak went on to explain that the island was incredibly safe, and she never felt the menacing nature of Alcatraz that prisoners referenced. In many ways, Babyak’s childhood recollections illuminate positive environmental manipulations that took place amidst the crafting of Alcatraz’s environmental mythology. Perhaps these privileged villagers enjoyed some of the native tranquility of Alcatraces, while less fortunate inhabitants felt the brunt of more sinister environmental alterations.

On the other side of the beautiful garden that complimented the correctional village community of the island, the inmates of United States Penitentiary Alcatraz experienced an environmentally painful, hazardous, and depressing circumstance.

Juxtaposed to the Native American and village populations positive perceptions of Alcatraz’s nature, the initial perceptions of Alcatraz Island to incoming prison inhabitants was environmentally ominous. Former prisoners have recounted the intense fog, hardened surfaces, and jagged edges of the Alcatraz environment.

In addition, prior inmates claim that much of the prison’s terrain served as a natural deterrent from their inclinations at previous prisons. The combination of the cold waters, hill like slope, and lack of visibility that permeated the island reduced the confidence of inmates in their escape probabilities.

Meanwhile, the ironically placed garden and San Francisco vantage point served as demoralizing reminders of the life they were no longer privileged to. Both the physical and emotional barriers catalyzed by the island’s southern environmental manipulations sharply contrasted the more optimistic environment of Alcatraz’s northern side.

Bill Baker was incarcerated on United State Penitentiary Alcatraz in 1957 after an armed robbery attempt gone bad. Baker referenced the environmentally oppressive nature of his imprisonment on Alcatraz in the statement

“Sometimes I felt like I had left Earth, like seriously, The Rock was not hospitable. You could barely see during the day, and everything around us made it impossible to imagine leaving. The shit was cruel, we could hear Frisco from our cells, sometimes the guards seemed to feel sorry for us.”

Baker went on to suggest that fellow inmates who were notorious for escape attempts or generally ruling former prisons lost their confidence when they reached Alcatraz.

In addition, Baker asserted that Alcatraz correctional officials were no more brutal than guards at other prisons; however, the surrounding environment at Alcatraz was unparalleled in its cruelty. One can only understand the environmental experiences of Bill Baker when juxtaposed to those of Joylene Babyak, as these two individuals manifest the polarized environment of Alcatraz during its penitentiary years.

The diametrically opposed experiences of these Alcatraz veterans reference environmental manipulation’s capability of fostering both human prosperity and hardships.

The latter byproduct of environmental manipulation began to rear its ugly head on Alcatraz Island as America entered the turbulent 1960s. As, the combination of revolutionary escape attempts and environmental decay on the island made United States Penitentiary Alcatraz a no longer desirable undertaking for the American government.

The most famous and first out-right successful escape from United States Penitentiary Alcatraz occurred in 1962, when prison inmates Frank Lee Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin left the island in the middle of the night on a makeshift raft. Morris utilized his officially recorded genius IQ to construct an escape that challenged the impenetrability of Alcatraz.

In conjunction with the erosion of the prison’s mystique, the natural foundation of Alcatraz Island was becoming increasingly unstable due to past environmental alterations. The Civil War enacted perimeter began to erode the island’s shore and exterior foundation.

Furthermore, the hillside nature of the penitentiary began to make surrounding buildings and constructions at risk for decay and possible collapse. It became clear that Alcatraz was no longer suitable to host such as extensive population of prison inmates, penitentiary staff, and adjacent families.

In addition, the international embarrassment stemming from Morris’s’ escape deterred the federal government from simply reducing the prison population, as they instead decided to decommission United States Penitentiary Alcatraz altogether.

There were many suggestions about what the next purpose of Alcatraz Island should have been, some of the most popular consisted of a casino, residential area, and reopened military base.

However, the most passionate advocation came from the island’s indigenous population, who sought to reclaim the island as the initial stance of the Native American Civil Rights movement. From 1969 to 1971, Alcatraz Island served as the epicenter for the Native American reoccupying movement, which ushered in environmental transitions still seen today.

Reform participants sought to return as much of the island as possible to its original formation, as they halted construction efforts and mitigated much of Alcatraz’s jagged perimeter. Native refugees also reduced the daily population and labor on Alcatraz in order to reacclimate the island’s natural inhabitants.

Via these environmental alterations the indigenous pelican and general bird population gradually migrated back to Alcatraz throughout the latter 20th century. Much of the movement’s emphasis on restoring the natural environment of Alcatraz stemmed from Native American cultural folklore and values stressing the importance human-nature respect.

In many ways, Alcatraz Island’s sharp divergence from its natural roots due to environmental manipulations is what initially attracted this radical movement to the destination. However, despite the success of this movement, the long-term stability of Alcatraz was still question, until the American government employed a type of environmental control over the island dramatically opposed to its previous engagements with the island.

In the wake of the end of the Native American occupation of Alcatraz in 1971, the federal government kept in step with the sentiments of these revolutionaries and added Alcatraz Island to the National Parks Service.

More particularly, Alcatraz Island was positioned as an environmentally consciousness tourist attraction that sought to reap the financial benefits of the island’s prison mystique while adopting conservation and preservation measures. The National Parks Service places a special emphasis on maintaining the indigenous bird populations, providing manifestations of the island’s Native American roots, and employing environmentally responsible tourist regulations.

The regulations include limiting of the population, substances, and activities taking place on Alcatraz in order to prevent further environmental decay. Regarding the island’s “Alcatraces” origins, the indigenous bird populations are treated as the first-class citizens of the Alcatraz.

Tourist are prohibited from engaging in any action that would threatened the safeguarding of the birds of the island. This stark difference from previous federal engagements with Alcatraz Island can certainly be credited to Native American environmental consciousness; however, the larger message of modern Alcatraz Island diverges from Native American agency.

Despite the Native American impulses responsible for the security of the modern Alcatraz Island environment, it is the more nefarious penitentiary years that truly inspire this environment-based tourist attraction’s societal impact.

This modern circumstance stems from the fact that the very predicaments that made United States Penitentiary Alcatraz environmentally crippling for prisoners make it an attractive tourist endeavor. Tourist are allured by the environmentally dangerous, daunting, and overall alien nature of the Alcatraz prison. Furthermore, much of tours conducted on Alcatraz operate by placing visitors in environmentally adjacent situations to that of former inmates in order illuminate the brutal environment of United States Penitentiary Alcatraz.

These revelations are intended to prompt critical thinking on the behalf of a world audience about the benefits and drawbacks of prison environments and environmental manipulation itself. In addition, the questioning of the American prison system as a whole is promulgated by much of the Alcatraz National Park structure.

One cannot leave modern Alcatraz without reflecting on the current prison system and the complex relationship between inmates and the natural environment in American society. This relationship seemingly permeates much of America’s prison system post-United States Penitentiary Alcatraz, as supermax prison infrastructure around American society strongly engages with the natural environment.

Ethnographer Greg Miller illuminates this predicament in modern society in the statement “Some of America’s most high-profile prisons such as Pelican Bay and ADX Florence reside in these geographically desolate landscapes.” This reality is complimented by inmate testimonies throughout American incarceration history that complain about the environment surrounding their individual cells.

Much of what mass society deems inhumane in prison sociology is natural environment, instead of correctional misconduct. The most important function of Alcatraz Island in the modern National Parks Service may be to call into question these largely ignored environmental circumstances.

The island known in popular culture as “The Rock,” presents and interdisciplinary history that broaches controversial social circumstances. This interdisciplinary nature bleeds into the environmental history of Alcatraz, as its natural environment permeates a multitude of schemas in American society.

Resulting from the island’s roles as a Native American stronghold and American governmental tool, Alcatraz Island’s environment experienced a continuum of alterations. These adaptations both strengthened and demoralized respective populations, as it came to symbolize the bifold nature of environmental manipulations throughout human civilization. 

The modern purpose of the Alcatraz Island National Park encompasses providing well-intentioned historical interpretation of both the menacing prison and idealistic natural environments that define the island’s history. Furthermore, the permanent inhabitants of Alcatraz serve as the most pervasive symbol of environmental evolution as a non-linear institution.

In many ways the humanity, nature, and animals encompassing Alcatraz Island’s history contribute to its impact on the global society. The complex progressions of these three agents provide mass-society with lessons about how to live amidst the world geography and not against it. If Alcatraz has taught us nothing else, it is that humanity should not underestimate the mind of “The Rock.”

Leave a Reply