Stupid Question ™
Sept. 26, 2002
By John Ruch
Q: Why did they close down Alcatraz? Are there any prison islands left?
—Puzzled About Prison Islands
A: Island prisons were typically built for special reasons—and with huge imperial budgets—that are highly outdated today.
The infamous Devil’s Island (and its two sibling prison islands) off French Guiana began as part of a penal colony; today it is, more fittingly (by modern standards), a tourist destination.
Prison islands were based on making criminals disappear rather than rehabilitating and reintegrating them. (South Africa’s Robben Island, where anti-apartheid activists—including Nelson Mandela—were jailed, was also used to dump mental patients and lepers in less enlightened years.)
Thus, they’ve been especially favored for political prisoners. Napoleon was dumped on Saint Helena in the South Atlantic; the Soviet Gulag system was invented on the White Sea’s Solovki Islands.
Like many island prisons, Alcatraz started in 1835 as a military outpost with a fine defensive position in San Francisco Bay. Being remote and fortified, it was also a good dumping ground for military prisoners (especially repeat escapees) and political prisoners such as Native American guerillas and Quaker war objectors.
In 1934, it became a federal prison, and perhaps the only island prison designed to capitalize on the island-prison mystique. Attorney General Homer Cummings wanted the rebuilt prison to intimidate would-be criminals and dumped such hard cases as Al Capone there.
It failed miserably. Crime stayed up and Capone ran his mob from his cell. Alcatraz was extremely expensive to operate and maintain, and by the rehabilitation-minded 1960s was a throw-away-the-key dinosaur. It closed in 1963 and was replaced by the landlocked prison in Marion, Illinois.
Like so many former prison islands, Alcatraz is now a national park. Likewise, the Chateau d’If off Marseilles, where the real Man in the Iron Mask and the fictional Count of Monte Cristo both did time, now traps only tourists.
Island prisons today are mostly ad hoc (political prisoners dumped on remote atolls in Fiji and the Maldives) or barely islands (like New York City’s Riker’s Island, tucked in the East River with its own bridge).
The US’s only remaining Alcatraz-style prison, accessible only by sea or air, is Washington State’s McNeil Island Corrections Center in Puget Sound off Tacoma.
A territorial prison opened on the 27-acre isle in 1875, not to prevent escape but because it was easy to supply by ship. (Escapes from island prisons were fairly common anyhow.) The feds dumped McNeil as impractical in the 1970s, but the state took it over.
Perhaps the only remaining island prison successfully melding the old and new is Mexico’s three-island Tres Marias group in the Pacific, 70 miles off Puerto Vallarta.
It opened in 1908 as the Mexican’s Devil’s Island for hardcore cons. But in the 1980s, it switched to a progressive version of a penal colony, with non-violent offenders allowed to choose to do time there, learning job skills and interrelating freely in what is essentially a small community all its own. Some see it as a model for prison reform.