By David Ward, Gene Kassebaum
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Extra info for Alcatraz: The Gangster Years
History have been without infamous criminals—those murderers, assassins, traitors, robbers, or outlaws whose unlawful acts, real or alleged, have inspired some combination of fear and outrage among Americans. While these lawbreakers often had sensational and well-publicized captures, trials, and executions, if they landed in prison they served their time along with more ordinary inmates in ordinary prisons—that is, until Alcatraz. When this federal penitentiary began operations in the summer of 1934 on a rocky island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, it opened a new chapter in American penal history as a prison explicitly designed to hold and punish the nation’s criminal elite.
Bennett, and asked if he would authorize a sociological study of Alcatraz. Familiar with my work on the University of Illinois project, Bennett approved a visit to the island for me and for my UCLA colleague Gene Kassebaum. In June 1962, with a letter from the director in hand, we traveled to San Francisco and boarded the prison launch for Alcatraz. It happened that our visit came immediately after the sensational escape by the Anglin brothers and Frank Morris, immortalized in the Clint Eastwood film Escape from Alcatraz.
This, he said, afforded him an opportunity to reflect, for the first time in his life, on the costs and benefits of his criminal career and consider a different course. Robertson’s response to doing time in a supermaximum setting—which could be summarized by the phrase “settling down”—was at variance with the then-current literature on the consequences of long-term confinement. Remembering what Karabelas had said about Alcatraz, and aware of the mystery and controversy surrounding the prison, I realized that Alcatraz was a very different kind of prison and that a study of its convict culture could provide valuable insights.