Stone Walls

Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, home to 1,500 of America’s most dangerous offenders, closed on this day in 1963 after twenty-nine years in operation. Designed as a “prison of last resort,” Alcatraz gained international fame for its distinguished clientele, harsh conditions and “escape-proof” setting — as verified by the thirty-six inmates who dared challenge the claim, all of them caught, killed, or assumed drowned (though the movie Escape from Alcatraz challenges the assumption).

Alcatraz was built to handle extreme offenders, many of them both dangerous and beyond rehabilitation; the typical U.S. federal penitentiary today, says Columbia law professor Robert A. Ferguson in Inferno, contains many who, despite being neither extremely dangerous nor particularly incorrigible, must endure public and private prison systems that are “harsher in practice than those in any but totalitarian countries”:

With 2.26 million people held in overcrowded and abusive prison systems as late as 2010, with one out of nine state workers employed in prisons, and with parts of the country spending more on incarceration than on education, the United States faces a dilemma of serious proportions and even of republican identity. The incarceration rate in the United States is the highest in the world today.

Hoping to bring issues familiar to the classroom and the courtroom into wider discussion, Ferguson’s “Anatomy of American Punishment” wonders, “Is the nation unaware, or confused, or indifferent, or misinformed about what happens in its prisons, or does it simply like things the way they are?”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at