ALCATRAZ ISLAND, SAN FRANCISCO BAY -- Across the cold water with the killing current, somewhere in San Francisco, lives an 82-year-old man who in 1934 arrived by railroad car at this rock in the Bay. He was chained to other convicts, including Al Capone. They had crossed the country in barred railroad cars that were put on a barge and floated out to Alcatraz.
Thus was Alcatraz theatrically inaugurated as a federal ''correctional facility,'' one that had nothing to do with correction. It had much to do with the glorification of J. Edgar Hoover, who understood that when gangsters were dramatized, gangbusters were glamorized.
Small (22 acres) and barren (all the top soil was brought from the mainland), Alcatraz is a pebble in a platinum setting, an eruption of grimness in the foreground of a sparkling city. The prison was an American oddity because it foreswore hopes for prisoner rehabilitation.
This history of penology illuminates the history of social theory. Writing in American Heritage, Roger Pray notes that prisons (other than those for political prisoners -- the Bastille, the Tower of London) are an American invention. Before prisons, crimes were redressed by financial, corporal or capital punishment. Philadelphia's Walnut Street prison, the first, was a product of Quaker humanitarianism and American liberalism. It reflected the faith that colonial Calvinists were wrong: Man is not basically depraved, and even the bad can be rehabilitated in an environment structured by the new science of penology.
Penology's original optimistic premise -- that behavioral changes can be programmed -- produced a quasi-medical approach to the ''treatment'' of prisoners. This tendency was strengthened by the new-found faith -- now much diminished -- in the ability to measure the personal qualities and behavioral tendencies of individuals.
The new science was used to justify vast discretion for ''correctional experts'' in administering sentences, prisons, parole and probation. This discretion reduced prisoners to the status of laboratory creatures, playthings of theorists. Alcatraz at least had the virtue of treating its prisoners as free moral agents -- as bad people, but people.
Alcatraz was the prison system's ''big stick.'' It was not for the most dangerous criminals; it was for the system's most difficult inmates. The haunting horns of passing ships, the rasping calls of swooping sea gulls, the moaning of the wind through the prison's crevices, all provide a surreal soundtrack for a movie without movement, confinement with no purpose other than confinement, a torture of unrelieved sameness.
Alcatraz was closed in 1963, just as increasing crime was stimulating impatience with rehabilitation as an aspiration. When Attorney General Robert Kennedy closed Alcatraz, he cited its high cost per prisoner and its emphasis on retribution rather than rehabilitation. But the fact that the closing pained J. Edgar Hoover probably pleased Kennedy.
In 29 years as a federal prison, Alcatraz never was filled to its 336 capacity. It handled approximately 1,500 inmates. Now on a summer day, 4,000 tourists visit it, so this is a suitable season for saying something appreciative about the admirable government agency that maintains it, the National Park Service.
Ranger John Martini exemplifies the service. He is a fountain of information about the history of Alcatraz back to its pre-Civil War role as a fort, and he brings an attractive moral seriousness to the task of historic preservation. He is offended by ''Alcatraz Swim Team'' sweatshirts sold along Fisherman's Wharf. On Alcatraz's hard ground, hard men were made to suffer because they had made others suffer. It is, Martini thinks, disrespectful of all participants in this moral drama -- to the brutal as well as their victims -- to treat this place as an amusement.
In a fine use of oral history, the Park Service taped 80 hours of conversations with former guards and inmates (including the 82-year-old who remembers ''Machine Gun'' Kelley as a bore). The interviews have been condensed into a 40-minute tape that guides visitors on a walking tour of a place that can be chilly on a July morning, and must have been unimaginably cold on New Year's Eve, when sounds of merriment at the Yacht Club wafted across the water to torment the inmates.
American tourists do dress oddly, but they are oddly earnest, seeking edification as well as fun, and they find it here. As they listen to the tapes, the only sound is the shuffle of shoes echoing through the cell blocks. The visitors emerge blinking and drawing deep breaths to dispel the sense of being buried alive, which was, after all, the point of Alcatraz.