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Robert A. Mills

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Blogs by Robert A. Mills

La Isla de los Alcatraces 5/24/09
5/23/2009 11:23:21 AM
The moment the man said “solitary confinement” I knew the experience would be different, to say the least, from any I had previously anticipated. Ushered forward, I was suddenly in the small room of which I caught merely a glimpse before the heavy steel door clanged rudely shut behind me.

I would remember the room as being bare, except for a small wooden stool in the corner; perhaps the dimensions were six by eight feet, if that. Also, in the corner near the stool, was a small hole in the floor, the only semblance of a lavatory I saw. There were no windows; the air was close and dank. What light there was came only from the illumination of my imagination, which would, I knew, fade rapidly as the intense darkness swallowed me.

The floor beneath my stocking feet was rough, cold cement, as were the four walls around me. There was no ventilation. My only contact now with the outside world was a closed slot in the steel door; when opened twice a day my food would be slipped in on a tin plate.

This was solitary confinement at Alcatraz Prison, just a short distance across San Francisco Bay from the thriving, pulse-pounding city where people habitually left their hearts. I had opted to be incarcerated for no more than five minutes.

It was during my last visit there as a tourist in the late 1980’s that I agreed to be cast into “solitary” and forgotten. Fortunately, however, my sentence was commuted after less than two minutes—but I have never erased it from my mind. At that point, I was willing to divulge all my secrets, if I'd had any. I was then and for all time convinced that crime does not pay—enough.

And now that the Guantánamo Bay prison at the Naval Base in Cuba is going to be closed, I have the perfect solution of what to do with its anti-American terrorist detainees.

Send them to Alcatraz.

Here is a perfect Federal prison that can be renovated by the Army Corps of Engineers and maintained at far less cost. In fact, all we have to lose is the revenue gained by the National Park Service from tourists who take the ferry from Pier 33 and enjoy a guided tour of the facility for about $25 a head (and 100% of that money goes to the private charter service that operates the ferry, anyway!) The people of California certainly have nothing to fear: no one had ever successfully escaped from Alcatraz since it was built! As Gail Collins recently wrote in the NY Times: "In the rank of threats to public safety, putting the Guantánamo inmates in maximum-security prisons in the United States has got to come in way behind, say, making it easy for customers to purchase firearms at gun shows. . . . Who would you rather have on the lam in your neighborhood — a native of Afghanistan whose history suggests an affinity for jihad? Or a resident of your own state whose history suggests an affinity for breaking into people’s houses, tying them up and torturing them?”

Also, establishing the island once again as a military prison will be an employment bonanza for both nearby military and civilian personnel. During its heyday, it housed as many as 250 prisoners and supported 60 families of guards, etc. It was closed in 1963 because it was costing the government about $10 per day per prisoner (the national average at that time was $3 per day.)

By today’s economic standards, operating Alcatraz Island as a military prison for Al-Qaeda detainees, combined with closing Guantánamo, would save U.S. taxpayers two-thirds what it costs to apply a balm to the banking business.

This seems like a simple solution to a most complex problem, and there are members of Congress and the Administration who will pooh-pooh it because of that simplicity—and, in some cases, they may be right. Re-establishing a national landmark and revenue-producing tourist destination to a military prison might appear too partisan to ever fly, notwithstanding the word “Alcatraz” in Spanish means “Pelican.”

Also, if it was good enough for Al Capone, it might be too good for El Kapondhi Zubarek.



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