Sunday, April 1, 2012

Alcatraz Guards Were Skilled At Counting

While watching the Ken Burns documentary prohibition this past week a number of thoughts were sparked. First, I had not previously connected the timing of the Volstead Act, and later it's repeal, with any of the broader events taking place in our culture. When the 18th Amendment was being debated in the states we were in the middle of a great war with Germany.

Anti-German sentiment was strong at the time. One of the ways public opinion was swayed to abolish alcohol was to manipulate this anti-German sentiment and use it to strike out against the German brewers who dominated that field of endeavor. Busch, Schlitz and the many others who had come to America and brought their knowledge of brewing to a new, wide open market. Burns' documentary shows the glee with which the "good guys" split open the kegs of beer with axes.

The end of the Volstead act also had a cultural context. In 1933 the last of 36 states had approved repeal of the 18th Amendment, FDR's first year in the White House. It's commonly understood that when presidents want to accomplish something that will not be popular with many of their constituents it's best to do it early in one's administration. Four years later at re-election time the unpopular decision will be forgotten, or at least diminished. Sure enough, when it came time to run for re-election, the country was in a great depression and prohibition was far from peoples' minds.

When prohibition was signed into law, millions of Americans were transformed into instant hypocrites, because the rich never stopped their sipping. If you're in Duluth, you might want to visit the basement "speakeasy" at Tycoon's on Superior Street. The Gitch was never dry either.

Yesterday afternoon I stopped at a place called Wine Beginnings for a wine tasting event. Wine Beginnings is not a liquor store, it is a store where you buy the ingredients for making your own home-made wine. The topic of prohibition came up and one of the people there explained that at that time the people who produced and sold these kits had warning labels that read, "Do NOT mix with such-and-so or it will become wine." In other words, they helped to make sure home brewers knew which kits to purchase.

One can hardly discuss prohibition without commenting on the the gang wars it fostered, especially in Chicago. It was not a pretty season on the South Side. Ultimately, Elliot Ness and his cohorts managed to get Al Capone on income tax evasion and he was sent away to prison in Atlanta. This surprised me because I thought he'd been sent to Alcatraz. Sure enough, Capone did go to Alcatraz. He'd been so popular in the Atlanta prison everyone was doing favors for him. He was a king inside the prison. Inside Alcatraz he learned that he was just another man doing time.

I came across a post card from Alcatraz this week. It summarized the daily routine of the prisoners there. I couldn't help but notice that the guards did a lot of counting.

6:30 AM: Morning whistle. Prisoners arise, make beds, place all articles in prescribed order on shelf, clean wash basin and toilet bowl, wipe off bars, sweep cell floor, fold table and seat against the wall, wash themselves and dress.

6:50 AM: Inmate Count. If all is in order, cells opened.

6:55 AM: Whistle signal given by Deputy Warden or Lieutenant; all inmates step out of their cells and stand facing the mess hall. Upon the second whistle, all inmates on each tier close up in a single file upon the head man.

7:00 AM: Breakfast

7:20 AM: Work detail signal from the Deputy Warden.

7:25 AM: Inmate Count on leaving mess hall.

7:30 AM: Inmate Count on arriving at work detail.

9:30 AM: Rest period inmate count.

11:30 AM: Inmate Count on leaving work detail.

11:40 AM: Dinner

12:00 PM: Inmate Count

12:20 PM: Single file line to recreation yard.

12:30 PM: Inmate Count

2:30 PM: Rest period; another Inmate Count.

4:15 PM: Work stopped; the procedure and count are the same as 11:30 AM.

4:20 PM: Prisoners into the gate, Inmate Count.

4:25 PM: Prisoners marched into the mess hall, Inmate count.

4:45 PM: Prisoners returned to their cells.

4:50 PM: Final lockup.

5:00 PM: Inmate Count.

8:00 PM: Inmate Count in the cells.

9:30 PM: Inmate Count, lights out.

12:01 AM: Inmate Count.

3:00 AM: Inmate Count in the cells.

5:00 AM: Inmate Count.

Thought for the day: In what ways is our war on drugs similar to and different from Prohibition?



Richard said...

Prohibition lasted only 14 years.

ENNYMAN said...

Thanks for the comment, and the visit.