Alcatraz: The Gangster Years

Alcatraz: The Gangster Years

Alcatraz: The Gangster Years

Alcatraz: The Gangster Years

Synopsis

Al Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Alvin Karpis, "Dock" Barker--these were just a few of the legendary "public enemies" for whom America's first supermax prison was created. In Alcatraz: The Gangster Years, David Ward brings their stories to life, along with vivid accounts of the lives of other infamous criminals who passed through the penitentiary from 1934 to 1948. Ward, who enjoyed unprecedented access to FBI, Federal Bureau of Prisons, and Federal Parole records, conducted interviews with one hundred former Alcatraz convicts, guards, and administrators to produce this definitive history of "The Rock." Alcatraz is the only book with authoritative answers to questions that have swirled about the prison: How did prisoners cope psychologically with the harsh regime? What provoked the protests and strikes? How did security flaws lead to the sensational escape attempts? And what happened when these "habitual, incorrigible" convicts were finally released? By shining a light on the most famous prison in the world, Ward also raises timely questions about today's supermax prisons.

Excerpt

My interest in Alcatraz—what it was like to do time there and how the experience affected prisoners in the long term—originated in the late 1950s, when I was interviewing prisoners and staff at the federal penitentiary at Terre Haute, Indiana, as part of a research team from the University of Illinois. In the course of this study of five federal prisons, I also interviewed prisoners at Leavenworth, a long-established maximumsecurity penitentiary. There I met an inmate who had been at Alcatraz. Most staff and prisoners at Leavenworth viewed Alcatraz—still in operation at the time—as a kind of mystery prison, an island fortress where the most notorious, dangerous, and volatile prisoners from throughout the federal prison system were locked up under conditions of supermaximum custody.

Spiro Karabelas came to the interview from a disciplinary segregation cell. Having no better place to go, and enjoying the opportunity to smoke, he was quite expansive as he reviewed his experiences on “the Rock.” Among many topics that came up, he explained how he had learned to pass hours and days in solitary confinement by “taking trips”—reliving in his mind, in infinite detail and minute by minute, those days and events in his life he savored most. This was the first description of various psychological mechanisms for coping with prolonged isolation that I would hear in talking with Alcatraz inmates. Karabelas seemed to be rather proud that he had not been “broken” by the regimen. This comment provided my first insight into the view that doing time on the Rock was considered the ultimate test of courage and inner strength for a certain class of convicts.

The idea that going to and toughing it out at Alcatraz might, for some convicted felons, represent an opportunity to show that a man could take the worst that the federal government could dish out was brought home by another event that occurred while I was at Leavenworth. As part of my own research for a doctoral dissertation on prison rule enforcement . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.