Escape to Alcatraz: Preserving History on 'The Rock'

Catrina Alexandre '17 and Dan Weiss '16 restored dilapidated concrete structures at Alcatraz, the former penitentiary in San Francisco Bay that once held the likes of Al Capone, Arthur "Doc" Barker and James "Whitey" Bulger and now hosts as many as 5,000 tourists a day, as part of a three-month internship.

NJIT students routinely secure internships at prominent engineering, technology and financial services firms in the metropolitan region, but they also strike out for distant horizons in search of the new and unexplored: a construction project in Qatar, a big-data team at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, and for two years in a row now, a conservation crew on Alcatraz, the legendary prison island in the middle of San Francisco Bay.

Most recently, Catrina Alexandre '17 and Dan Weiss '16, an engineer and an architect, spent three months at the former penitentiary that once held a who’s who of lawbreaking infamy – Al Capone, Arthur "Doc" Barker and James "Whitey" Bulger, to name a few – restoring deteriorating concrete structures besieged by corrosive salt air and driving winds.

Weiss, a fifth-year architecture student from Pittstown, recalls arriving the first morning by ferry this past summer as "The Rock," a mile and a half from the shore, seemed to grow in size as he approached.

“It felt a little like watching a movie, but also a bit like going to jail – a little terrifying, but also very exciting,” he said of the craggy island, reserved for the country’s most dangerous criminals and considered by many to be the country’s first “supermax” facility.  “Alcatraz holds such an influence on the country’s imagination. It’s almost magical. I’m proud to say that by restoring it, I helped keep it relevant.”

The prison’s conservation is a national priority. As many as 5,000 tourists a day flock to the island, which is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the most visited park maintained by the National Park Service. Weiss and Alexandre, both students in NJIT’s Concrete Industry Management (CIM) program, worked on small crews that repaired and, in some cases, demolished and rebuilt, crumbling railings, stairways and roofs.

Restoring History One Railing at a Time

 “Because of the high salt content, the buildings are always in need of repair,” Alexandre noted of the complex, which closed in 1963 in part over the ongoing struggle to maintain it. 

“The concrete itself would last forever, but the metal inside needed to support it deteriorates,” added Weis, who recalled “the winds blowing steadily at the western side of the buildings,” where exposed steel reinforcements were visibly corroded.

To ensure durability in such a harsh climate, their work on the complex had to be “superb” and its execution perfectly timed, the students said.

“We monitored the weather to optimize the concrete setting. And we wouldn’t start too early when the sun was beaming down, because the top would dry too quickly,” Alexandre noted, explaining that  if the drying time is poorly calculated, “concrete will not develop the full bond between all of its ingredients and that will cause plastic shrinkage. It will be weaker and tend to crack more easily.”

Once rebuilt, the structures had to be aged. “To restore the historical look, we used wire brushes to add texture,” Weiss recounted.

Demolition Nights in Cell Block D

Working around thousands of visitors was its own challenge, the students said. Some jobs, such as repairing a stairway landing next to a cell house, were so disruptive they couldn’t be done with people milling about, requiring the interns to overnight on the island.

“We called these demolition nights, when the work was so dusty and noisy we had to wait for the tourists to leave,” Alexandre said. “Eight of us spent four nights there, sleeping on cots in Cell Block D, where the most dangerous prisoners were housed in solitary confinement.”

“It was pretty weird to have the prison completely empty. The only sounds were seagulls, wind and the sound of the water,” Weiss recalled.

“We definitely got a sense of the loneliness and haunting presence on Alcatraz,” Alexandre added, “Inmates could see San Francisco Bay through one tiny six-by-six inch window cut out of the prison wall. They had a view of the beautiful skyline and of boats passing by, with no chance of participating. It was a psychological imprisonment being locked up in Alcatraz – so close to the real world, but so far away.”

Weiss said their work provided an intriguing glimpse into the lives of the prison staff who lived on the island with their families. They repaired a crumbling railing, for example, around a greenhouse established by a warden’s wife that contained some exotic flowers, including an English rose once thought to be extinct. The Park Service has made a concerted effort to restore the island’s many gardens over the past decade.

“We began to get a real feel for what happened there,” he said, also noting the still visible signs of an 18-month occupation by Native American activists, beginning in 1969, who were protesting their treatment by the federal government. “You could still see red paint they left, writing their names in various places, adding another layer of history.”

Alexandre met a former prisoner on the ferry who rode out to the island to sign books he wrote about life at the prison.

“He was a very laid-back and humble man. He spoke about how he was surprised he didn’t go insane after being locked up at Alcatraz,” she recalled. “It was interesting to see him there because he didn’t have any bitter feelings about coming to the prison. He said in his younger days he’d made a lot of mistakes, but that he learned from them.”

To the outside world, Alcatraz remains a place of mystery and intrigue, Weiss says, in part “because it is in the middle of the bay and yet can be seen from many places in San Francisco, even at the bottom of Lombard St. The fact that it is in the public’s eye enforces its unique history while its remote location allows imaginations to run wild as visitors walk across the Golden Gate or along the piers, keeping the island as part of the backdrop of the city.”

Life off the Island: Surfing, Sightseeing and Coyote-Spotting

When off the island, the NJIT students lived with other interns in a military bunker on Muir Beach, a stretch of parkland frequented by bobcats, coyotes, mountain lions, deer and raccoons, and each morning took the ferry “rain or shine” to the prison. On their weekends off, they visited San Francisco’s Chinatown, the Mission District, and trekked in Muir Woods. Weiss even surfed.

Alexandre worked in public relations for the park, posting videos and pictures to social media outlets. She also interacted with visitors and patrons of the Concrete Preservation Institute (CPI), which coordinates repairs with the National Park Service, and helped spread their message. She also talked to students at San Francisco Bay area high schools about different majors in STEM fields and helped them sift through college financial-aid programs.

Students from NJIT’s CIM program have worked on the prison conservation project for two years in a row now through a program coordinated by CPI.  Mohamed Mahgoub, an associate professor of engineering technology and director of NJIT’s CIM program, said he is already encouraging students to sign on again this summer.

“Alcatraz was one of the most secure prisons in the United States, on an island in the ocean that can only be reached by boat. And all of it is concrete – from the hospital to the recreation yard – to withstand the harsh environment," Mahgoub said. "It is such an exciting and unique opportunity for our CIM students to work there. It gives them great concrete experience in the field of rehabilitation, restoration and retrofitting, as well as the chance to learn about construction safety and how to plan and perform  an efficient restoration project on a storied historic monument.”

 “Hands-on experience working with concrete is invaluable. Real issues come up that you’re required to troubleshoot – even with plans and strategy, things change,” said Jamie Gentoso, chair of the program’s Northeast Patrons Board, after watching Alexandre’s Alcatraz presentation at the group’s winter meeting on campus this past December. “Learning to work on a team – and to lead – are also so important.”

Back to the Future

The students described the experience as not only skills-building, but life-changing.

 “It helped push me in the direction I want to go in. I knew from the time I was a LEGO-obsessed youngster that I liked building and designing, but going out to the island and working in conservation gave me a firmer sense of the importance of sustainable design and practice,” said Weiss, who is minoring in environmental studies and sustainability. “Whether it’s preserving old buildings or reducing CO2 emissions through design, there is a finite amount of resources on earth and all of us must work toward a sustainable future.”

Alexandre called her summer on Alcatraz, where she began knowing little about the difference between concrete and cement but ended confidently wielding chipping hammers, circular saws and paddle mixers, a “once-in- a- lifetime experience that helped me transition from what I thought I could do to what I actually could do.”

She, too, sees a future in construction engineering.

“In the future, I will open up orphanages and hospitals in Haiti and other deprived places. I want to use my schooling for the betterment of society. Live as if you were going to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were going to live forever has been my life motto. This experience definitely influenced my passion for growth in education and skills,” she said. But for the present, she’s savoring more recent accomplishments.

As Alcatraz conservationists, “our names are in the archives of the National Park Service,” she said. “We’re in the history books.”

Tracey Regan