Jailhouse Rock

WITNESS TO A GRIM PAST: Alcatraz made escape impossible.   | Photo Credit: PHOTO: USHA SUBRAMANIAM and S. THANTHONI


Two jails, a world apart, have certain curiously parallel traits.

ANDAMAN... Alcatraz ... A world apart, one off the Indian subcontinent in Bay of Bengal, roughly equidistant from Chennai and Kolkata; the other just two miles north of San Francisco mainland. I was struck by curious parallels between the two. Modern history begins after 1775 on both islands; they stood mute witness to a grim past as they were home to penal settlements established mid-1850s. Their natural isolation made escape virtually impossible.

Kaala Pani (Black waters) in the midst of enchanting, emerald green islands. The island cluster of Andaman, inhabited by tribes for centuries, was first surveyed by Royal Navy in 1788 and occupied in 1789. An unhealthy climate and harbour maintenance costs forced abandonment by 1796. It was reoccupied when, in March 1858, the first batch of 200 revolutionaries of Sepoy Mutiny was shipped, followed by another 700-odd in 1868. Thereafter, the numbers are not known. In 1937, repatriation of prisoners began after a 36-day hunger strike by inmates, closing the chapter on Andaman's infamous 80-year penal history.

Astounding proportion

A visit to Cellular Jail leaves one disturbed and uneasy. The first thing that strikes you is the astounding proportion of the sprawling structure. When constructed 100 years ago (1896-1906), seven wings radiated from a tall central watchtower. Each wing had three storeys with row upon row of tiny prison cells totalling 698 for solitary confinement. Of the seven stark, puce-coloured "wings", three still remain.

On the prison tour one sees the cramped, dark and dingy 13' x 6' cells, the monstrous large latch sealing the fate of prisoners with finality, various kinds of fetters (chain, cross bar) displayed, sheds where convicts were forced into hard labour - peeling coconuts, extracting oil from coconuts, sesame, mustard seeds; we learn of insufficient food often unfit for human consumption served to prisoners, how they were flogged mercilessly. A haunting sense of injustice, torture, atrocities and death pervades the entire complex. The silence of empty cells seethes with grisly stories.

The poignant light-and-sound show in the evening is remarkable for its sheer evocative power. An old banyan tree takes centre-stage in the narrative as it sombrely recounts sordid tales witnessed within the four walls of the Jail. Cellular Jail is a moving National Memorial dedicated to freedom fighters of our country.

Prominent landmark

In 1775, Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala mapped and named Alcatraz, then uninhabited and almost barren. Early 1850s, the U.S. Army built a citadel there to protect the booming area during the heyday of California Gold Rush. Soon, this most heavily fortified site on the West Coast housed military prisoners under stringent conditions. Eighty years later, due to high operational costs, the U.S. Army handed over Alcatraz to the Department of Justice. "The Rock" was the Government's solution to curb rampant crime during the Great Depression years, until closure in 1963.

A prominent and enduring landmark of San Francisco visited by over a million tourists every year, Golden Gate National Recreation Area's Alcatraz Island (as with many destinations American) is surrounded by much hype and hard sell. Blue and Gold Fleet runs frequent ferries to and from the island; yet, tickets are usually sold out days in advance.

The fascinating 35-minute award-winning audio tour - included in the $16 ticket - was well worth the price. Guided by voiceover down the main corridor christened "Broadway" by inmates, pausing at the Mess hall, past Gun Gallery, one hears recordings of former inmates and correctional officers as they recount life on Alcatraz, the rebellions, several failed escape attempts and brief profiles of notorious inmates like Al Capone.

Visitors can step into certain open cells. One learns of intricate six-month planning that led to the daring June 1962 escape attempt when dummies with human hair were meticulously made to fool guards during inmate count. The outcome of this escape is unknown since surviving the cold waters, strong currents and one-and-a-quarter mile swim to the shore by a prisoner is very remote. The episode was made into the hit film "Escape from Alcatraz".

Overall experience

Though the prison itself is quite unremarkable, the overall experience scores because of systematisation and precision of presentation (ticket information/procurement, the first-rate audio-tour, visitor instructions/amenities - including the footboard to step in and out of the ferry, unlike the brave balancing act that one performed to jump out of and into the ferry at Vivekananda Rock).

Port Blair's awesome Cellular Jail would create a deeper impact with an upgradation of presentation. A multi-lingual audio-tour would benefit visitors on a tight itinerary, who are unable to return for the evening sound-and-light-show. Hard-sell coupled with adequate information flow (especially on the Internet) and clean amenities should be the thrust areas for India's burgeoning tourism industry.

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Centenary year

March 10, 2006 saw the commemoration of the centenary of the Cellular Jail, Port Blair, Andaman Islands. Three freedom fighters - Kartick Sarkar, Bimal Bhowmick and Adhir Nag - who had been incarcerated in the Cellular Jail were present at a ceremony before the prison gates. There was a special light and sound show on the experiences of the inmates.