Inside Alcatraz: The Dining Hall
Visitors to @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz will encounter the island from new perspectives — not just metaphorically, but literally. With artworks occupying the New Industries Building, A Block, the Hospital, and the Dining Hall, the exhibition invites visitors into historic spaces that (with the exception of the Dining Hall) have usually been off limits to the public. This summer on Field Notes, we’ve been sharing stories from these remarkable spaces. We’ve visited the New Industries Building, A Block, and the Hospital; we conclude our tour in the Dining Hall.
“You may converse in normal tones with persons near you. Boisterous conduct will not be tolerated in the dining room.”
— USP Alcatraz Regulation 33: Dining Room Rules
In the early years of the Alcatraz penitentiary, a strict rule of silence was observed throughout the cellhouse. Any unnecessary conversation was forbidden, and a low murmur of “Pass the salt” to someone down the table in the Dining Hall might be the only words one prisoner exchanged with another in the course of a day. This rule was relaxed in 1937, and 20-minute meals in the Dining Hall gave inmates more chances to talk — whether for strictly social reasons or for less innocent ones, like hatching plans to escape.
However, just because it allowed a degree of social contact doesn’t mean that the Dining Hall was a relaxing environment. Meals followed a tightly controlled protocol, and inmates were closely watched by both unarmed guards on the floor and armed guards on the catwalk; tear gas canisters were mounted on the ceiling. Security was tight with good reason: because each inmate had utensils that could potentially be used as weapons, the Dining Hall was one of the most dangerous places on Alcatraz. Inmates leaving the room had to pass through a metal detector, and utensils were carefully counted at the end of each meal — although some did slip through: Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers used spoons from the Dining Hall as tools in their breakout, made famous in the movie Escape from Alcatraz.
Officers and inmates ate the same food, which was prepared by inmates under supervision. The food was considered some of the best in the prison system, and Alcatraz officials claimed that the food budget per inmate was larger here than at any other penitentiary. Inmates were allowed to serve themselves as much food as they wanted within a specified limit; keeping their appetites satisfied gave them one less reason to revolt. But even in this, there was a catch. “Take all that you wish . . . but you must eat all that you take” was the policy, and inmates could be disciplined for failing to finish their meals.
See the Dining Hall for yourself when you visit @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, on view September 27, 2014, through April 26, 2015. Advance tickets are strongly recommended. To purchase, visit Alcatraz Cruises.