Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Alcatraz: The Shoddy Rock

The first prisoners arrived at the new federal prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay on this date back in 1934.  I was surprised by how recent that was, since Alcatraz was closed again for good in 1963, just 29 years later.  

You may have heard that it was closed in part because the prison was much more expensive to run ($10 per inmate per day) than the average federal prison ($3). But the other two reasons are more intriguing.  The prison buildings themselves were apparently suffering from extensive premature saltwater corrosion. This was traced the money-saving decision during construction in the 1930s to pipe in salt water rather than fresh water to the buildings for most uses.  This had the unintended consequence of corroding the pipes, so salt water seeped into the concrete, causing it, in turn, to weaken and begin to crumble. (Thus the inmates in the infamous 1962 Escape from Alcatraz were able to 'dig' out of their cells using modified spoons.)  That escape attempt highlighted the need to rebuild substantially all the buildings on the island, if it was going to continue as a prison. The third reason is more prosaic. Apparently San Francisco Bay was being badly polluted by sewage from the 250 inmates and 60 Bureau of Prisons families.

So in essence "The Rock" was done in prematurely by shoddy construction and inept design.  It's interesting to me that it's not remembered that way today.  Imagine the hue and cry that would be raised if a similar situation occurred now.

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