From 1934-1963, the federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island housed America’s most notorious gangsters, bank robbers, kidnappers, and other public enemies, and the guards who controlled their every move. Marooned on the island, convicts lived in isolation while San Francisco’s city lights twinkled through the fog, just over a mile away. Shrouded in intrigue, “The Rock” has become part of San Francisco mythology, and attracts tourists by the ferryload. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the penitentiary’s founding, and on Sunday, August 9, former prisoners, guards, and their families will return to the island to remember the years they spent there.
Elaborate escape attempts and other forms of resistance added to the prison’s reputation as the place for the most hardened, desperate, and dangerous criminals. David Ward, author of Alcatraz: The Gangster Years, spoke to Michael Krasny on KQED Radio’s Forum about what life was really like in the prison, how long-term confinement affected its uniquely tough population, and the surprising reasons why some of the most rebellious, “worst of the worst” convicts went on to lead successful lives after release. His findings offer insight into the nature of punishment and rehabilitation, with implications for prisons today. Listen to the interview: