Here’s how this week’s arts and culture column begins:

Everyone’s heard of The Rock: the infamous maximum-security prison that operated from 1934 to1963 on a tiny, harsh, rugged island in San Francisco Bay: Alcatraz.

The Rock has spawned movies, books and folk heroes: Escape from Alcatraz; the Bird Man of Alcatraz. Al Capone was incarcerated here, as were such notorious criminals as George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, Roy Gardner, and Frank Lee Morris.

But the rich and varied history of Alcatraz extends far beyond its site as a penitentiary. It was used in the 1850s as a military fort. Its lighthouse, still in operation today, was the first on the West Coast. In 1969 Indigenous activists occupied Alcatraz for 19 months. They hung a portrait of Geronimo over the fireplace mantel in the old Penitentiary Warden’s mansion and held tribal meetings around the hearth.

Today it’s known as an important bird-nesting locale as well as for the historic Alcatraz Gardens.



  1. Yes yes yes on the stunning gardens. I didn’t know about the Geronimo hanging. Ha…..I have been there too just like so many intrigued by the entire place and life of imprisonment that I can not imagine. Lonely desperate men under the gun all the time hearing the chugging chug chug and horn blaring sounds of the city at night. Laying starting at a dark and cracking ceiling much of the time. Longing freedom to no avail. Leaping straight up perhaps in the middle of the night from a frightful dream that seemed so real. No choice but to either find peace inwardly and busy one’s self in the present without too much thought or hope of a future freedom gain. I have many thoughts and imaginations of how they lived.

    I have had the experience of working as a nurse in two different correctional facilities. I actually loved it. I also walked through with a death row inmate as a pen pal for 2-3 years before he was executed in Huntsville TX. To my shock and amazement he was a prolific talented artist who seemed to reform himself and had to die so horribly.

    So all that being said, I was very piqued with interest when I saw you wrote about Alcatraz. It’s the gardens I longed to focus on instead because of the beauty created on such a daunting frightening residence of past. Made me think of the verse that references, all things work for the good…..

    Thank you for making me think of that place again and allow me to muse over what I haven’t thought of in quite a while.

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Barbara, thanks for these rich reflections. Yes, there was so much to take in–the stunning beauty of the setting, landscape, gardens, birds, and crumbling, moss-covered outbuildings–juxtaposed with the brutality and suffering. Afterwards I read a biography of Richard Stroud (The Birdman of Alcatraz) who was a fascinating figure, kind of a genius sociopath who managed to make the most of his decades of confinement, and another of James Quillen, who tried to escape I think twice, and finally served his time, got out, and went on to raise a family and live a “normal” life…what’s heartbreaking about so many of these guys’ lives (and women, too, who end up in prison) is that they almost invariably have at least one alcoholic parent. Who is almost invariably AWOL emotionally and is often viciously abusive. That you accompanied your Death Row inmate for 2-3 years was a beautiful work of mercy.

      Anyway, the visit made a deep impression on me, from the mournful sound of the ferry foghorn to The Rock hoving into view to a peek into one of The Holes…there but for the grace of God go I…

  2. Barbara again….correction…..Laying STARING at cracked ceiling…
    And thank you for AllowING me to muse
    (Couldn’t just let the typos go….