I had been to San Francisco a few times and never got organised to go to the famous Alcatraz island in the bay, home of the infamous high security jail and the subject of films and books.
Finally, I got there. It was a fascinating and incredibly well organised and thought provoking experience. It is hugely popular and you need to plan a trip in advance, especially if you are only in the city for a short while.
But definitely worth planning to go.
Alcatrtaz celebrated its 75th Anniversary of becoming a civil prison in August 2009. It dates back before that when used as a military prison. The facility closed as an operating prison in 1963 as it became too costly to maintain as the buildings were dated and lacked modern plumbing and the like.
- The prison was renowned for being a harsh and tough place, and although after visiting it and seeing the tiny cells and gloominess of the place, some of the image was driven by the fact that almost no visitors were allowed to the island to see prisoners and if they were they peered through tiny windows of thick glass.
- Alcatraz is also famous for the stories of some of its inmates, like the famous gangster Al Capone ( who was actually sent to the island on a prison train from miles away that was then put on a barge and sailed to the island!) and the dangerous criminal known as “bird man of Alcatraz” (although in reality his studies of and keeping of birds was at his previous prison).
- The prison is also infamous for the stories of escapes/ escape attempts. Only 3 people escaped from the prison and have never been found, though it is expected they drowned. They had over time burrowed into a service passage behind each of their cells and managed to make plaster fake heads complete with hair to fool the guards into thinking they were sleeping. There was also a vicious battle where guards were shot and one killed after being locked in a cell. That attempt led to a 2 day battle where marines were called in and the leader shot and later 2 others sentenced to death.
- After the prison closed in 1963 it lay empty and crumbling, it was occupied by Native American tribes on and off as protests, the longest lasting 19 months. Then it became a national park and open to tourists.
There is one main way to get to the island, and this is through the Alcatraz Cruises company that runs a ferry around every 30 minutes from Pier 33.
- It is almost essential to book in advance, easiest to do online, and it is often sold out in advance. The site is alcatrazcruises.com
- They offer some tours but the most popular is to get the ferry, and look around by yourself.
- On docking after a short 15 minute or so ride the around 1.5 miles there, you are given a short briefing reminding you that this is a National Park run by the Federal Government and so those laws apply. Then it is up to you.
- It is a lot of walking and up a very steep hill, the equivalent of 13 stories, so you need to be prepared. There is a limited golf cart pulled passenger transport for disabled/ limited mobility people. But it is very limited availability.
What to see
There are leaflets for a donation of just $1 that explains the layout of the island.There are 3 main things to see:
- An audio visual presentation about the history of the island
- Stroll around the island. Most of it is open.
- Audio tour (which is free) around the main cell block. This is excellent and narrated by former guards, prisoners and some people who lived as children of guards on the island. This tour is fascinating and walks you around the cell blocks, dining room, library, old guard rooms and some of the outside. It tells of the routine, how isolation areas worked, dining room, escape attempts and so on. It is quite chilling looking at the 3 high stories of cells and imaging hundreds of men locked in these tiny cells, some 24 hours a day.
It is a very grim and at the same time imposing place. I wish I had gone there sooner.
See all the photos of the ferry to the island and of the prison: click here
Alcatraz Prison San Francisco (36), originally uploaded by garybembridge.
Alcatraz Prison San Francisco (32), originally uploaded by garybembridge.
Alcatraz Prison San Francisco (d block: isolation), originally uploaded by garybembridge.