Islands at the end of the civilized world

| October 4, 2012 | 0 Comments


New York City’s Riker’s Island in the East River, houses 14,000 prisoners and has 8,500 staff.

New York City’s Riker’s Island in the East River, houses 14,000 prisoners and has 8,500 staff.

The idea of a prison located on an almost inaccessible island is supposed to strike special fear in people being kept there against their will. If the dot of land housing the facility is within sight of the mainland — in sight, that is, of freedom and civilization — then the cruelty of imprisonment is all the more delicious to the captors. If the stretch of water separating the prison from normal society is full of sharks and treacherous currents, the poor inmates’ situation is even more hopeless. Devil’s Island, off the coast of French Guiana in South America and Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay are, of course, the two most infamous examples of island prisons, but they’re hardly the only well-known ones.

Robben Island off Cape Town in South Africa, once a leper colony, later a political prison, is where Nelson Mandela spent nearly 27 years behind bars. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Côn Son Island in the South China Sea off Vietnam, mentioned by Marco Polo in his Travels, was called Poulo Condor by the French, who stuck political prisoners there between 1861, when they took over the southern part of Vietnam, and 1954, when French Indochina collapsed. Later the Vietnamese used it to house U.S. PoWs, including some who were held in the notorious tiger cages devised by the French. It ceased being a prison once the Vietnam War ended. It’s now a luxury spa.

Two new books, one on Devil’s Island and the other on Alcatraz, are of special value because they show how island prisons flourished (if that’s the proper word) as a result of public policy — in the former case, foreign policy — that was hideously ill-conceived and carried out.

Empire and Underworld: Captivity in French Guiana (Yale University Press, US$49.95) by Miranda Frances Spieler, a historian at the University of Arizona, looks at the various penal facilities in French Guiana (of which Devil’s Island was only one). They were used by successive French governments, whether royal or republican, to keep opponents in check not merely by jailing or exiling them but rather by taking away, then restoring, then often taking away again, their civic (as well as civil) rights — in many cases, permanently. Some of France’s overseas colonies (another example is Nouvelle-Calédonie in the southwest Pacific) existed as much for this purpose as they did for trade, military advantage or propagation of the Christian faith. French Guiana, which most French people called simply Cayenne, after the only permanent town there, is the clearest example because, paradoxically, it is the most maddeningly complex.

L’Île du Diable is one of three islands in the Salut group (salut in this case, meaning “salvation”, of course, rather than “hello”). All of them were prisons. The French also built an equal number of prison facilities on the mainland, just across the narrow strait. For a time, Devil’s Island served as the leper colony for the entire system. Between 1852, when the French government established this complex of prisons, and 1953, when they shut it down, 80,000 prisoners were shipped there. The idea was not merely to exile undesirables but also to use them to make a functioning colony of such a remote and inhospitable place. Why did a similar idea work well for the British in Australia when it failed so miserably for the French in South America? Partly because the French did not endorse the setting up of families (indeed, only a handful of women were ever sent there) and also because, in any event, Paris kept rewriting the rules of incarceration.

Nelson Mandela spent nearly 27 years behind bars on Robben Island.

Nelson Mandela spent nearly 27 years behind bars on Robben Island.

In showing the failure of the variable French policy, Prof. Spieler concentrates on the period before the phrase “Devil’s Island” became so widely used. The colony was a place with the aroma of impermanence about it. The French declaration of sovereignty appears to have accelerated the scattering, fleeing and general disappearance of the original native inhabitants. France then began to import African slaves, who themselves fled into the jungle whenever opportunity arose. Although this was a place where slave labour was once practised on a large scale, it is also one where, as the author points out, “Not a single planter’s house remains today, even as a ruin.” Indeed, she goes on, French Guiana “strikes the newcomer for the scarceness of traces indicating a history of human settlement.”

As the French Revolution erupted in 1789 and grew increasingly radical over the next 10 years, prisoners of all sorts were condemned to French Guiana: royalists, priests, and political prisoners, as well as common criminals, dangerous and otherwise. Punishments meted out to counter-revolutionaries were like those previously given to, for example, Parisian vagabonds, in that punishment was aimed at what everyone was supposed to hold most dear: the concept of national belonging. “A clerk of the court would lead a convict to the town square and declare: ‘Your country has found you guilty of infamous action. The law strips you of your French citizenship.’ The convict would remain bound and on display for between two and six hours with a placard over his head indicating his name and crime.” Then it was off to hard labour.

Prof. Spieler describes one scene in January 1798 when a tone-deaf vaudeville performer who recited anti-government doggerel in the streets was shipped off to French Guiana to the sound of a drumroll along with “a column of priests, hairstylists, nobles, cobblers, and two legislators”: a typical consignment of prisoners. Revolutionary France did abolish slavery (as well as the custom of branding criminals with hot irons). But slavery was re-legalized by Napoleon in 1802 before finally being quashed throughout the empire in that fateful year 1848.

Before the revolution, déportment was simply a legal term. Now it was more of a fanatical cry. The citizens called out for the deportation of “deviants of all sorts,” including minor offenders, political and otherwise. The policy of taking away their citizenship and civic rights indicated that the majority of the public wished them sent “somewhere remote from free soil and ordinary colonial society. The un-French wilderness under metropolitan sovereignty, whether in the form of French Guiana, the once and future colony of Madagascar, or the wishful imperial hinterland of Namibia,” resulted in what Prof. Spieler calls a double quarantine. Lest anyone miss the point that people declared undesirable were also perforce considered monsters of a sort, France’s colonies in Asia, Africa and the Americas were deliberately not included under the short-lived constitution of 1791. They were places that housed, in the author’s phrase, “deleted people.”

French citizens in the middle decades of the 19th Century, Parisians in particular, seemed to have been fascinated by crime almost as much as they were, not without reason, frightened of it. Population boomed, politics were unstable and frequently violent, and suspicious foreigners were everywhere. Such was the general atmosphere in which Victor Hugo published Les Misérables in 1862 — though, by then, the situation had worsened. After the populist revolution that broke out through most of Europe in 1848, the public’s fear of convicts became acute. So it was that in 1852, Napoleon III made French Guiana into a true penal colony, as distinct from the all-purpose rubbish bin of humanity it had been earlier. But the emphasis was on penal more than on colony.

In 1862, Napoleon III made French Guiana  a true penal colony.

In 1862, Napoleon III made French Guiana
a true penal colony.

In 1854, a law was passed forcing prisoners, once they had completed their sentences, to remain in French Guiana for a period equal to their incarceration — except if their original sentence had been greater than eight years, in which case they were to remain in the colony for life. Serious criminals and political prisoners accounted for most of the population until 1885 when minor offenders began being sent there if they committed a second offence.

Few who were condemned there ever left alive (the famous exception being poor Captain Alfred Dreyfus, sent there on a trumped-up charge of treason but later pardoned). Certainly there were few (such as Humphrey Bogart’s character in Passage to Marseille) who ever broke free. Henri Charrière’s book Papillon, which inspired a later film, was fraudulent fiction. One man who did actually do the near-impossible was an anarchist named Clément Duval. In 1886, his death sentence was commuted to hard labour for life on Devil’s Island. In 1901, he somehow escaped and lived out his days in New York.

In time, the French saw their policy for what it was. After some delays arising from the Second World War, they shut down the Guianan prisons in 1953. But they hung onto French Guiana, which they continue to keep afloat with massive infusions of cash, much as the British must do with the Falklands.

Alcatraz was often called the American equivalent of Devil’s Island. That and other intimations of inhumane treatment there, even torture, irritated almost beyond endurance the department of the U.S. government responsible for federal prisons. In his book Alcatraz: The Gangster Years (University of California Press, US$29.95 paper), David Ward seems to bridle in similar fashion. So does his junior co-author, Gene Kassebaum. Both men are emeritus professors of sociology, at the universities of Minnesota and Hawaii, respectively, and have written extensively on penology. Prof. Ward has been studying former Alcatraz inmates since the 1950s, and has amassed so much information that the present book, which is quite fat, is to be followed by a second volume dealing with, well, the post-gangster years. As it is, he and Prof. Kassebaum have so much material that they must work hard to find a logical narrative sequence and stick to it.

As the most notorious and feared federal prison, “the Rock” functioned for only 30 years. It was dreamed up by President Herbert Hoover in the late 1920s and opened under the first Franklin Roosevelt administration in 1933. After 1948, it reverted to being just another federal prison, no more harsh and awful than any of the others, and was finally closed in 1963. The island itself, however, had been a prison a long time. It was first used by the Spanish, who “discovered” it in 1773 and named it Alcatraz, the Spanish word for pelican. Once California became part of the United States, the site was used as a military prison for deserters, recalcitrant aboriginals, individuals who refused to swear an oath of the allegiance to the federal government, Filipinos taken prisoner during the Spanish-American War and pacifists.

The inmates in San Francisco’s municipal jail, barely two kilometres distant, had to be relocated there temporarily following the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906.

Prior to the civilian Alcatraz, there were only three federal prisons: Leavenworth in Kansas, Atlanta and McNeil Island in Puget Sound, Washington State. The third of these was the last island prison in the federal system (unless one stretches a point to include manmade Terminal Island just outside Los Angeles). McNeil was finally abandoned in 2011, after 135 years of use. Of course, there’s a big one run by New York City — Riker’s Island in the East River, with 14,000 prisoners and 8,500 staff.

By contrast, the statistics on Alcatraz seem small. It had only 270 cells, including the dreaded underground dungeons, whose existence Prof. Ward doesn’t seem to decry. Prisoners there, some of them naked, lived in darkness and were starved and sometimes beaten and were handcuffed to the bars in a standing position during daylight hours (or what would have been daylight hours had there been sufficient daylight). In three decades of use, Alcatraz housed a total of only 1,546 inmates. On average, inmates in Alcatraz stayed only four or five years, before being transferred out or even released, but there are striking exceptions. One example is Richard Stroud, a pimp who murdered one of his whore’s customers over an accounting snafu in Alaska in 1916. Although he’s known as the Birdman of Alcatraz, he kept birds only when he was imprisoned at Leavenworth, not during the 16 years he spent in solitary in Alcatraz.

In any case, Stroud was also atypical in not being a serious career criminal, the sort for which Alcatraz was designed. The whole point of Alcatraz was to house, in Prof. Ward’s phrase, “the most notorious, dangerous, and volatile prisoners from throughout the federal prison system.” The policy was that they should have pathetically little contact with the outside world, including friends and family. Until a federal judge ruled the condition unconstitutional, they were even forbidden from communicating with their lawyers.

The most famous inmate (he was America’s first official Public Enemy Number 1) was Al Capone, who arrived with the first batch in 1934 and died a free man — free but with syphilis destroying his brain — in 1947. There were constant rumours and press reports that Inmate No. 84, as he was known in the files, lived like a king inside Alcatraz and still controlled the Chicago underworld from his cell. Such talk, which was completely untrue, drove the Bureau of Prisons itself to the edge of madness. Profs. Ward and Kassebaum, who had access to his prison records, give a detailed account of what, given all the circumstances, was his comparatively trouble-free stay on the Rock. But one gets a vastly more detailed and generally superior understanding of his life there from the most recent Capone biography, Get Capone (Simon & Schuster Canada, $18.99 paper) by Jonathan Eig, late of the Wall Street Journal. He brings to the task first-rate skills as a researcher, as with his discovery of hitherto misplaced or sequestered documents that bear on Mr. Capone’s time in Alcatraz , where he became proficient in the mandola (a sort of giant-size mandolin). One of Mr. Eig’s documents even casts doubt on whether Mr. Capone had anything whatever to do with the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. There’s no question, however, that he had much to do with the establishment of Alcatraz.

John Dillinger

John Dillinger

Mr. Eig’s title refers to President Hoover’s daily orders to bring Capone to justice by whatever legal means necessary — which in turn explains the book’s subtitle, “The Secret Plot That Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster.” People in authority hated the urban bootleggers of Prohibition not simply because they flouted the increasingly difficult-to-enforce liquor laws but also because so many of the more prominent hoodlums became folk heroes. When the ’20s ceased to roar, the world slipped into the Depression. Prohibition was ended and gangsters of a new type — rural in character — displaced the old in the affections of the masses. These were big-time bank-robbers and kidnappers of the Midwest and South, people with names such as Machine Gun Kelly (in time, an Alcatraz resident), Pretty Boy Floyd, John Dillinger, and Alvin Karpis (about whom more in a moment). The fact that so many of them, once captured, found it easy to break out of local jails or state prisons added force to the drive to create Alcatraz as a place where “isolation from normal society was an essential element….”

As might have been foreseen, Alcatraz thereby became home to the criminal crème de la crème and, as Prof. Ward admits, a transfer to the Rock from another institution “was for some convicts a badge of honor, something to achieve.” Or as Alistair Cooke explained to his BBC Radio audience, Alcatraz was full of “men who enjoy a life sentence as a lifelong challenge to discover how, with a twisted hairpin or a stolen razor blade, to break away from any prison they are put in.” Strikes and organized protests were as frequent inside Alcatraz as marches were among the unemployed on the outside. There were a number of destructive riots, including one in 1946 that became known as the Battle of Alcatraz. It resulted from an escape plot. There were 14 such attempted break-outs in all, only one of which might have been successful, though no one knows for certain. This was the 1962 jailbreak by Frank Morris (played by Clint Eastwood in the film Escape from Alcatraz) and a pair of brothers, John and Clarence Anglin. To the federal government, that was one of the last straws. Alcatraz — a prison where talking was the most common infraction for which men were sent to solitary — was abandoned.
For a short while, the government appeared to have learned an important lesson in prison policy. Profs. Ward and Kassebaum write that escapes drew media attention and “growing criticism of ‘dead-end penology’ (no effort to reform or rehabilitate prisoners) led the Bureau of Prisons to conclude that rather than concentrating troublemakers in one small prison, they should be dispersed to many prisons. That strategy, however, began to fail in the 1970s as violence related to prison gangs and drug trafficking increased.” Counter to these trends, however, ran a streak of enlightenment that the two authors, if I am reading their tone correctly, stoutly oppose. For they seem to harrumph when they write of “activities that began in the 1960s and 1970s — attending class, going to meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, the Toastmasters Club, or the black culture groups, or attending individual or group counseling sessions” that became common in post-Alcatraz prisons.

Al Capone

Al Capone

Yet, the changed conditions of the 1970s also brought countervailing pressure for a return to what many had decided was an outdated outlook. Prof. Ward advised the judiciary committee of the U.S. House of Representatives on the creation of a new place far worse than Alcatraz ever was: the federal prison at Marion, Indiana, where a twenty-three-hour lockdown was standard and underground punishment cells found new life. Marion was later downgraded to medium security as other supermax prisons were opened. None of them, it seems, is on an island, yet the idea of incorporating such geographical considerations into prison design does not seem to have withered away in other countries.

In Italy, there is vigorous debate about two prisons located on islands off the coasts of Tuscany and Sardinia. In Nigeria, the political prison on Ita Oka Island was a state secret for years. Now, with its cover blown and the authorities no longer able to deny its existence, plans have been laid to build a new prison at a secret location exclusively for the purpose of locking away Islamists. So much do high secrecy and high security seem to be the trend these days that one can almost look back on Alcatraz (now a tourist trap) with social nostalgia.

The person who inherited the coveted Public Enemy No. 1 distinction from Al Capone was a famous Montrealer, the aforementioned Alvin Karpis. In the early 1930s, his was a name familiar to everyone who read banner headlines. He was a kidnapper of millionaire businessmen and a robber of banks and company payrolls, often in association with Ma Barker and her offspring — hence “the Karpis-Barker gang,” a common phrase in news coverage at the time. In 1936, FBI agents captured him in New Orleans. Once they had done so, they signalled their boss, J. Edgar Hoover, to come out of hiding, so he could take credit for the collar. The capture was perhaps the biggest boost to Mr. Hoover’s career since he deported American citizens such as Emma Goldman from Ellis Island in 1919. (Ellis had become the country’s main intake facility for immigrants in 1892. The first person through the gate was an Irish teenager named Annie Moore who, contradicting the idea of the American dream, died in poverty in 1924 a few kilometres away in the Lower East Side slums. The immigration station was closed in 1954. It is now a museum — and a deportation facility.)

Mr. Karpis held the record for the greatest length of time served in Alcatraz — more than 25 years. Like Al Capone, he spent much of his tenure learning music (and years later, while resident at Terminal Island, taught Charles Manson to play the guitar). Prof. Ward quotes one-time Alcatraz inmates as saying that Mr. Karpis “was a nice guy in his later years.”

So I, too, found him to be.

In 1968, having successfully survived 32 years’ imprisonment in various institutions, he was released — and instantly deported to Canada. He was a slender man with a grey flat-top haircut, a vertically lined face and a calm, if careful, demeanour. He told me once that his skill with a Tommy gun had come to the attention of Frank Nitti, the man who took over management of the Chicago mob following Mr. Capone’s imprisonment. Mr. Nitti offered him a lucrative retainer to be on call for machine-gunning tasks whenever they might come up, which was seldom. Mr. Karpis was tempted, he said, but declined the offer with thanks. You see, he was pure freelance, not some independent contractor. When he finally got out of prison, he said, the first thing he wanted to do was to see Arthur Penn’s new film, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway: Bonnie and Clyde. “They were friends of mine,” he explained. He died in 1979, age 71.

Many fine writers have left diaries and other accounts of horrifying journeys in the Congo, one of those poor parts of the world against which history seems to hold a hideous grudge. Joseph Conrad, André Gide, Graham Greene and V.S. Naipaul are some examples (not to mention the most recent one, the British writer Redmond O’Hanlon, author of Congo Journey). Still, it comes as a bit of a surprise to find Congo Solo: Misadventures Two Degrees North (McGill-Queen’s University Press, $24.95 paper) by Emily Hahn. She was a New Yorker writer, better known for her popular books on China, who ventured into what was then the Belgian Congo (today’s Democratic Republic of Congo) to pursue an ultimately tragic love affair. She stayed on to explore the country, get to know some of its people and chronicle the racism and brutality she saw. The book was published to no success in the worst year of the Depression — 1933 — and then only in bastardized form. Ken Cuthbertson, Hahn’s Canadian biographer, has pieced together the original version as accurately as possible. Hahn’s observations are vivid and often still relevant, but her style is, well, perky.


When the Berlin Wall was taken down in 1989, a big stack of books tumbled into being. Prime examples included Michael Meyer’s The Year That Changed the World: The Untold Story behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall (Simon & Schuster Canada), Mary Elise Sarotte’s 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe (Princeton University Press), and Frederick Taylor’s The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961–1969 (HarperCollins Canada). There was even one entitled Postcards from Checkpoint Charlie (University of Chicago Press) — literally, a collection of postcard images. Now comes a much different study of the subject: Berlin at the Brink: The Blockade, the Airlift, and the Early Cold War by Daniel E. Harrison (University of Kentucky Press, $US40). What Mr. Harrison does that others do not is engage in the more or less obsolescent art of diplomatic history, working in the official archives of the U.S., Britain, France and what was then the Soviet Union — but without downplaying (quite the contrary) the contributions of people on the ground. The result: some startling revisionist conclusions.

George Fetherling’s new book, The Writing Life: Journals 1975–2005, is being published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.

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