Art Notes on life on Alcatraz federal penitentiary


- Nothing was for sale (for example, cigarettes were free, newspapers contraband)- except art materials and instructional art books. (source: audio from earphone provided during tour)

- During this year's tour in 2004, several cells displayed art done by the prisoners, including paint-by-the-number pictures, landscapes on canvas, and pencil portraits. To an artist touring the facility closed since 1963, it was like an unexpected art exhibit located in several side by side prison cells (each only 9'x5')

- One of the inmates involved in the Great Escape attempt of 1946 was considered the best landscape painter among the inmates.

- In the movie, ''Escape from Alcatraz," supposedly a true story, one inmate nicknamed "Doc" loved painting so much that when they took away his art materials, he cut off his fingers in the industrial shop where he worked. Another inmate in the movie grew some special flowering plant on the island. The flowers provided him some sense of connection with the beauty of nature.   When he one day placed a flower on the dining table , the warden crushed and  threw it away stating it is not allowed, which caused the convict to have a  fatal heart attack.

- One would think a view of the San Francisco city skyline and bridges would be refreshing for inmates permitted into "The Yard." However, for reasons I cannot decipher, all outside views are obstructed by tall concrete walls.  The floor itself to this outside recreational area is concrete.

- The cell house is painted battleship gray with black lines and the prison cells white with gray borders.  Maybe that is why some prisoners did art to add color to their confining space.

- There are ruminants of different styles of architecture on Alcatraz, because it served as a  fort during the Gold Rush, a military prison during the Civil War, and lastly as the notorious federal penitentiary.  The island was  named by a Spanish explorer in the mid 1800s and it means  "Island of Pelicans." 

- Fashion not:  Souvenir shops along Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39 sell bold black and white striped prionser uniforms, thereby promoting the misconception that this was the prisoner uniform at Alcatraz.  However the  inmate's clothing was simply a tucked in long sleeve shirt and pants of bland color.  The more flashy zebra-like "jail bird" clothing is seen worn by escapees from jails  in Old West movies.

- Art materials were used to render realistic faces for the dummy heads used in cell bunks that enabled inmates to escape by digging through deteriorating concrete walls.