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Book Spotlight: Alcatraz, A Definitive History of the Penitentiary Years

Updated on July 23, 2014
Exterior view of Alcatraz AKA "The Rock."
Exterior view of Alcatraz AKA "The Rock." | Source
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Alcatraz: A Definitive History of the Penitentiary Years is very likely the most comprehensive book written about Alcatraz, the United States penitentiary developed in response to the organized crime wave during the Great Depression era of the 1930's. Its undeniably accurate which Michael Esslinger, its author, obtained through meticulous examination of primary sources, as well as interviews taken from actual former inmates who were still living at the time of the book's writing. If you are a crime genre enthusiast, this is undoubtedly one of the must-haves for your collection.


Thorough In Its Re-telling of Alcatraz History

Alcatraz opens with a forward written by a former inmate by the name of Darwin Coon, who served on Alcatraz from 1958 - 1963, ironically returning later in a much different capacity as a tour conductor of the prison several years after its closure. Coon renders a short, personable insider's view of The Rock allowing the story to come alive for the reader. From here, the re-telling of the major events of Alcatraz moves from discovery of the island itself by Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, to its operation as a military prison and finally covers the subsequent take-over by the U.S. Department of Justice for its transformation into an escape-proof superprison to house only America's most notorious gangsters of the time.


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Al Capone was one of the first inmates housed at Alcatraz. During this time, the prison enforced a strict code of silence.
Al Capone was one of the first inmates housed at Alcatraz. During this time, the prison enforced a strict code of silence.

Principle HIghlights of the Book:

  • Several biographies present the most notable inmates, detailing their backgrounds and crimes as well as a thorough discussion about how each one made his way into the prison. Al Capone, Robert "Birdman" Stroud, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Roy Gardener, Doc Barker and Henri Young are covered extensively. Other inmates mentioned in the book include Alvin Karpis, Mickey Cohen, Frank Morris and others.
  • Elaborate accounts of every escape attempted at Alcatraz, all 14 of them, who was involved and how each occurred, detail for detail, even how the escapes were planned.
  • Numerous photos: inmate mug shots, crime scene images, letters written by inmates, prison records as well as photos of the various prison chambers including the dungeon and treatment units. Photos of inmate cells were also included.
  • Informative descriptions on the various wardens that came and went throughout operation, including the disciplinary approach to which each advocated and subscribed.
  • Includes a detailed representation of the entire lay-out of the prison, materials utilized in its construction, the plan prison officials used to incarcerate inmates and what determined housing assignments.
  • Covers the way prisoners were transported into the prison, what happened once they arrived and their daily lives while serving time, disciplinary tactics used and specific prison regulations.

Of course, nothing describes life on Alcatraz better than the inmates themselves, which the book heartily offers. Readers close the book with a pretty good understanding of what punishment was like on The Rock, as well as what it was like to be one of the guards. This is definitely one of the strong selling points of Esslinger's work:

" I've lived under the strict routine of America's most infamous prison and faced head-on the relentless pressures of existence within my cramped and tiny cell... Meanwhile, the painful landscape of freedom was spread before us, just out of reach across the bay. The sights and sounds were a continuous reminder of everything we had lost." ~Darwin Coon, AZ-1422, former inmate of Alcatraz Penitentiary

Alcatraz – A Definitive History of the Penitentiary Years, contains ~1,000 photos, hundreds of documents including FBI investigation records, and is clearly one of the most extensive archives detailing the inmates and their life in prison on "The Rock." This work spans the mid 1930’s to 1960’s, culminating in years of intensive research.


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