“Alcatraz rocks! “ was the comment from one of the children on our tour boat. We were headed to Alcatraz—the former federal prison and now national park—for a tour of the facility and island. The boat ride is the only way to get there. We departed from the San Francisco wharf next to the infamous Pier 39—itself, a major tourist destination. Alcatraz was made a part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area in 1972. The National Park Service (NPS) operates the facility.
Infamously known as “The Rock, “ Alcatraz was the ultimate destination for prisoners deemed incorrigible or a troublemaker. A few prisoners whose names you may recognize include Al Capone, Alvin Karpis, George “Machine Gun “ Kelly, and Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz.”
After stepping off the boat, the walking tour of Alcatraz is at your own pace. Numerous departure times for the return boat are posted so you can stay on the island as long as you want. There is a steep walk (12% grade) up to the main Cellhouse building and a tram is available for those unable to make the climb.
An audio tour is the recommended way to hear the information. You get a comfortable set of earphones and a simple-to-operate player that allows you to stop the narrative at any time, replay when needed, and there are clear directions to the next point of interest. The information is excellent and the stories and comments by former prisoners provide an interesting perspective.
Alcatraz was a real prison specially designed to hold some of the toughest and meanest prisoners this nation had incarcerated at that time. The tour walks you through the cell blocks where you have a close-up view of the real cells where prisoners lived.
During the tour, viewing the individual cells (left), “segregation, “and “isolation” (lower right) is an eye-opening experience. Rule Number 5, Alcatraz Prison Rules and Regulations, 1934, stated that, “You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention. Anything else you get is a privilege.”
When a prisoner was placed in “segregation, “ it was not considered additional punishment. This move was designed to simply separate prisoners and prevent contact. Interestingly, the “segregation” cell is actually larger than the normal cell.
Special cells called “Isolation “ were designed for the highest level of punishment. Inmates referred to the isolation cells as the “Hole.” When the outer door to the cell was closed, the interior of the cell was in total darkness. Listening to the audio tour, one prisoner described his time in isolation as follows… He stated that to pass the time and keep from going crazy, he would rip a button off his clothes, then flip that button up in the air, he would turn around three times, and then search the floor for the button—by feel—by crawling around. Simply, it gave him something he could do in total darkness.
Prisoners were kept in the isolation cell 23 hours-per-day. This punishment was, in effect, the total loss of all privileges.
Visitation with the immediate family was also a privilege (remember Rule #5) and, as with all activities (privileges), was regulated by a set of rigid rules. These visitation rules were designed to control the visit and prevent potential problems. The inmate and his visitor were separated by a window of thick glass and conversation was by phone. All conversations were monitored.
Occasionally, prisoners would be able to see across the bay. There, San Francisco beckoned them. One Alcatraz myth is that it is impossible to survive the swim to the mainland because of sharks. However, there are no “man-eating” sharks in San Francisco Bay. The cold water (averaging 50–55 degrees), strong currents, and 1-1/4 miles to shore were excellent deterrents.
In 1934, prior to opening Alcztraz, a teenage girl swam to the island to prove it was possible. The fitness guru Jack LaLanne once swam to the island pulling a rowboat, and two 10-year-old children also made the swim.
Thirty-six men (two who tried twice) were involved in fourteen escape attempts from 1934–1963. Twenty-three were caught, six shot and killed, and two drowned. Officially, no prisoners succeeded in escaping from Alcatraz, however, five prisoners are listed as “missing and presumed drowned.”
Frank Morris, with John and Clarence Anglin (brothers) escaped from their cells and were never seen again. Another inmate, Allen West, believed to have been the mastermind, was involved but was still in his cell the next morning after the escape. “Escape from Alcatraz,” the movie starring Clint Eastwood as Frank Morris, was the story of this escape. The men used prison-issue raincoats to make crude life vests and a pontoon-type raft to help them survive the swim. The three men were never found.
Our Visit Ends
We had an excellent tour and visit to “The Rock” and I recommend it if you are in the San Francisco area. You start and end from the San Francisco wharf, have a nice boat ride, and can take your time on the island.