Alcatraz Opens Wards

The hospital opened along with the Alcatraz prison in 1934, although medical facilities on the island date back to the 19th century when it housed an army fort. With an operating room, psychiatric cells, wards with beds, and other resources, a general practitioner and visiting surgeons and specialists gave regular care to the maximum security prisoners, without risking their escape. Medical care was one of only four basic rights [along with food, clothing, and shelter] granted to prisoners at the Alcatraz penitentiary. Inmates exercised their right at sick call: every day after lunch, prisoners could line up to ask to be taken to the Hospital upstairs from the Dining Hall. One former officer claimed that as many as 10 percent of inmates would appear in the sick line on a given day, either suffering from genuine illness or hoping for an escape from regular life in the cellblock.

Both Al Capone (wrecked by syphilis) and Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” spent significant amounts of time in the hospital, but most inmates just got the basics like dental work and only minor surgery. Still, like the rest of the defunct prison, it holds a heavy, isolated feeling to it. Ai Weiwei’s installation has porcelain flowers crowding in the hospital sinks and bathtubs, and a recording of Hopi and Buddhist chants filling the psychiatric cells. The delicate interventions are some of the quietest of his exhibition, resonating in a haunting way with the crumbling walls and worn medical equipment of the space.

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