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America’s Most (In)famous Prison

Cell at AlcatrazClang. The doors shut. You did not even see the guard do it-he’s way down the corridor, out of sight. The sound is startling. Then it begins to sink in-you are locked in this cell. You have a mere 45 square feet of floor space all to yourself and you are let out three times daily for meals and twice weekly for showers. When they march you past the windows you can see that beautiful city filled with people working, studying, eating, talking, kissing, living. You heard that on New Year’s Eve the party near the Wharf is so loud, you can hear it all the way out here. If you behave yourself, the warden may give you a job that pays nothing. You really hope you get one. Number 5 in your copy of Alcatraz Rules and Regulations, 1934 says, “You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Anything else you get is a privilege.” That means time in the yard. That means a shower. That means books. That means everything. But you didn’t get chucked into the most infamous United States Penitentiary by being a nobody. First you had to get Uncle Sam’s attention. Bank robbery. Multiple homicide. Organized crime. Then you had get under the skin of the warden at your old prison by attacking a guard, attempting escape or by just being “creepy.” Accomplish these and you may earn a ticket to San Francisco Bay and the island fortress known as Alcatraz.

Alcatraz at duskAlcatraz started out as a military garrison built in 1853 as part of a strategic defense plan to protect the wealth coming out of the nearby mines during the California gold rush. Military prisoners were held here during the Civil War, Indian Wars and Spanish-American War. The fort was decommissioned in 1907, and by 1915 it became the United States Disciplinary Barracks, Pacific Branch. In 1934, ownership was passed from the War Department to the Department of Justice because the Bureau of Prisons wanted the island as a maximum security basket for all of their bad eggs, and, as an island, Alcatraz was the perfect choice.

Perhaps it is because of some the high profile names that did time here (Al Capone, George Kelly) or the isolation or that visitations were limited, but rumors and myth have replaced historical fact, and Alcatraz now has its own place in American lore. The truth is that no one has ever successfully escaped from Alcatraz and lived to tell about it (the three that made it out in 1962 drowned in the bay). No one was ever executed on Alcatraz. Al Capone did not die here (he died as a result of syphilis at his home in Palm Beach, Florida in 1947). Conditions were actually pretty good for inmates (by prison standards, that is). The facility was clean, uncrowded and the food was delicious. Prison could be worse-just ask those doing stints in San Quentin 15 miles away.

Alcatraz was occupied by Native AmericansBy the 1960s, change was in the air. Americans elected a handsome senator from Massachusetts to be their next president and the prison talk was all about reform. Prisons were supposed to rehabilitate, not just punish. That change in public opinion coupled with the maintenance cost of a crumbling island prison led Attorney General Robert Kennedy to close the prison on Alcatraz island in 1963. It was treated as excess property until 1969 when Native American activists began a 20 month occupation of the island. Their goal wa to raise awareness of the unfair treatment tribes have received by the United States government. They likened Alcatraz to an Indian reservation: “It is isolated from modern facilities, the soil is rocky and unproductive and the land does not support game.”

In 1972, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area was created and Alcatraz became a National Park that welcomes 1.3 million visitors annually. The National Park itself is free, but getting there isn’t, so your tour begins with a ferry reservation. Even if you don’t make a reservation, it is worth calling that day or heading over to Pier 33 to the ferry dock to check availability. The night tour is the best tour and the most popular. Take the night tour. Arrive at the dock a little early to check in or buy tickets if you still need to do that. On your way to the boat, you are marched past a giant poster of Alcatraz and a staff member takes your picture. This picture will be available for purchase on your way back. A picture of you or your travel companion in a cell is a much better souvenir, so save your money.

Once on the ferry, it takes about 20 minutes to cover the 1 1/4 miles to the island. The wind blowing in your hair, the view of the city behind you, the looming island prison drawing closer all add to the experience. When you disembark, you are given an introduction by very knowledgeable park rangers before being led up to the prison itself. In the showers, free audioguides are handed out and your self-guided tour begins. The voices on the auidoguide are those of former guards and convicts.The audioguide takes you and down the corridors of the cell block, through the offices and visiting area, the mess hall and the library. They tell stories ranging from the monotony of prison life to the extraordinary escape attempts and the so-called Battle of Alcatraz.

By the time you finish listening, the rangers are ready to give their talks and demonstrations. A highlight is seeing the prison doors in action. The doors are not opened at the cell itself because it would be too dangerous to have a guard fiddling with his keys and swinging a steel door open to a convicted murderer. Nor is there any automation or electricity involved as they can cause the doors to fail. The doors are opened remotely at the end of the corridor. A guard selects the cell or cells (up to 14) by pressing the buttons, then pulls one lever to unlock those cells and another to open the doors. Opening and closing them takes a lot of brute force because it is all mechanical. This is the original pre-WWI apparatus and it still works (mostly).

If you are lucky, the rangers may open up the infirmary. This is not part of the audioguide tour and it is not open for very long, so pay attention at the beginning of the tour for the times it may be open. There are no lights on in here; just a few battery-powered lanterns illuminating the rusting beds, obsolete medical equipment and peeling paint. There are several rooms to visit, so take your time and let the eerie atmosphere get the better of you.

When your tour is finished, head back down to the dock for the ferry ride back to the mainland where freedom awaits. As you pull away from the island, imagine what it would be like to be incarcerated so close, yet so far, away from a life we all take for granted.

Know Before You Go

Book a ferry reservation with Alcatraz Cruises before you go. It is $26 for a day tour and $33 for the night tour. During the day, ferries run about every 40 minutes, but for the night tour, there is just the one returning ferry. There are no concessions on the island, so eat before or after your tour. The Alcatraz gift shop closes before the last ferry leaves, so shop before you take the tour.

Bottom Line

The ferry ride, the cell house tour and the walk around the island combine to make this a must-do in San Francisco.

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