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October 2019 Vol. 15 No. 3

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Doug Norris

Alcatraz

Certain mornings, when the winds blew in the right direction, prisoners woke to the aroma of fresh sourdough bread from bakeries along Fisherman’s Wharf. They heard the clanging of cable cars running up and down Powell and Mason. They listened to drunken voices and the jazz of holiday parties as they lay on their prison cots. When they received yard privileges, they could see cruise ships coasting under the Golden Gate Bridge, voyaging to and from port. San Francisco lit up like a million birthday candles at night. “There was life,” said one prisoner. “It was right there. We could almost taste it. We could almost feel it. But we weren’t a part of it.”

bottles, clam shells
the sound of dawn
breaking

Inside Alcatraz, concrete blocks lay atop one another, barred by thick iron, forming cubicles containing a bed, a toilet and a mirror. And those are the best rooms. There are others, in “The Hole,” facing the open bay, inviting the worst of the fog and the winds. Lightless pits. Where prisoners on bad behavior spent long days and nights in solitary. One man talked of ripping a button off his clothes as soon as he landed in The Hole. He threw it onto the ground. Got on his hands and knees to feel for it. Once he had the button in his fingers, he stood up and tossed it again. The prisoner repeated this action over and over, to keep from going crazy.

fogged in
without the wind
only owls

Another talked about closing his eyes in the dark. “You know how when you close your eyes, you eventually see a small light?” he asked. He concentrated on that light, until it grew bigger and brighter. In time, the white light filled with color, then images. The longer he fixed on the images, the less he noticed the wind, fog, cold and dark, and he began to see stories, “like little plays, or television.”

awakening
the gift of sleep
a mosquito bite


Author’s note: The quotes are from an audiocassette that I listened to when I toured Alcatraz back in 2000. The audiocassette featured commentary from former prisoners and guards. I wrote down quotes and details in a notebook while touring, but unfortunately, I do not have the names of the prisoners quoted.


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