|Decline and Fall of an American Icon|
Perhaps one of the greatest ironies of Alcatraz was that the frigid and treacherous waters of the San Francisco Bay, which had proved to be the ultimate deterrent to escape for nearly three decades, would eventually contribute to the downfall of America's super-prison. Following the escape of Morris and the Anglins, the prison fell under intense scrutiny due to its deteriorating structural condition and the diminishing security measures that had resulted from governmental budget cuts. However, this development should not be credited entirely to the escape, since many of these decisions were already in process before the attempt was made. The corrosive effects of the saltwater, combined with the exorbitant cost of running the prison ($10.10 per prisoner per day, as compared with $3.00 at USP Atlanta, not including the estimated 5 million that would be required for restoration), provided U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy with grounds for closing the prison.
On March 21, 1963, USP Alcatraz closed after twenty-nine years of operation. The island remained essentially abandoned while several parties lobbied the government with ideas for development, ranging from a West Coast version of the Statue of Liberty to a shopping center/hotel complex. Then in 1969, a large group of American Indians landed on Alcatraz and claimed the island as Indian property.
|Alcatraz Historical Indian Occupation|
The Indians articulated great plans for their new territory, hoping to start an educational Native American Cultural Center. Public support for their cause began to grow, with advocates ranging from show business celebrities to the Hell's Angels. The Indians had the attention of both the media and the U.S. Government. Federal officials met with them, often sitting crossed-legged on blankets inside the old prison Dining Hall, to discuss the social needs of the rebel group. The volume of visitors became overwhelming, and the island started to become a haven for the homeless and the less fortunate. The Indians soon were faced with the same problems that had once stymied the prison administration: the total lack of natural resources, and thus the requirement for all food and water to be ferried over by boat. This was an expensive and exhausting process.
Despite special prohibitions declared by the Native Americans, drugs and alcohol were prominently smuggled onto Alcatraz, and the situation quickly became unmanageable. The social organization of the community soon fell apart, and the Indians were forced to resort to drastic measures in order to survive. In an attempt to raise money to buy food, they allegedly began stripping copper wiring and copper tubing from the island buildings for sale as scrap metal. Tragedy struck the community when Yvonne Oakes, the daughter of one of the key activists, fell to her death from a third-story apartment balcony. The Oakes family left the island in deep despair, and never returned. Then in the late evening of June 1, 1970, a fire that had been accidentally started by the occupants raged through several of the buildings, burning down the Warden's home, the lighthouse keeper's residence, and the Officers’ Club, and badly damaging the historic lighthouse that had been built in 1854.
Tension now developed between Federal officials and the Indians, as the feds blamed the activists, and the activists blamed governmental saboteurs. The press, which until then had been largely sympathetic toward the Indians, now turned against them and began to publish stories of alleged beatings and assaults on Alcatraz. Public support for the Indians fell drastically. The original organizers had all deserted the island, and the remainder fought amongst themselves – all of which provided clear evidence of the loss of solidarity within their society.
On June 11, 1971, twenty Federal Marshals assisted by the Coast Guard descended on the island and removed the remaining residents. All were taken to Treasure Island under protective custody, and this marked the official end of the occupation of Alcatraz. In 1972 Congress created the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and Alcatraz Island was included as part of the new National Park Service unit. The island was opened to the public in the fall of 1973, and it has since become one of the most popular Park Service sites, with more than one million visitors every year from around the world.
Today Alcatraz is considered an ecological preserve, and is home to one of the largest western gull colonies on the northern California coast. The thrill of being on Alcatraz comes partly from an awareness of its historical significance, but also from the prison's portrayal in classic Hollywood motion pictures. But many of the former inmates are still trying to come to terms with their imprisonment on Alcatraz, and they strive to understand why people would want to visit a place that represented to them only a monument of anguish and despair.
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