From a distance, Alcatraz Island appears like an idyllic outcrop rising from tranquil San Francisco Bay in Northern California. It looks lush with its green vegetation, flowers and various bird species that find refuge on this remote landmass. Even the twinkling lights that illuminate it at night seem to beckon with romance. Who would have thought that this little island was used as an army fortress, military prison and a maximum-security federal penitentiary? For in contrast to its idyllic appearance, it was a place of infamy, hardship and Hollywood myth. A place that housed the most hardened of criminals – those transferred from other prisons because they broke the prison rules – to serve out jail sentences on this isolated rock. A desolate and craggy boulder buffeted by cold winds and treacherous currents in a lonely bay.
Alcatraz Island is a National Historic Landmark and was used to house Civil War prisoners as early as 1861, so one can see that its historical use as a penal colony goes way back. It is also home to the United States West Coast’s oldest operating lighthouse, and has been featured in many television shows, Hollywood films, books and other media.
The short 12-minute ferry ride that is boarded at Pier 33 near Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, offers panoramic views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco Bay. After disembarking on Alcatraz, visitors listen to a short informative chat about the island. There are complementary interpretive walks led by park rangers and volunteers, self-guided tours, many exhibits with memorabilia and information about the history of Alcatraz, free audio tours and bookstores selling a variety of Alcatraz-themed books, films and souvenirs. Visitors can also watch a 17-minute orientation video in the theater by the cell house which introduces guests to Alcatraz. Because the island is full of steep hills, it’s best to wear comfortable walking shoes, though tourists can also take the electric shuttle that runs twice hourly from the dock to the cell house building.
The award-winning 45-minute audio tour is fascinating and highly recommended. It is available in several languages and is free of charge. It is a captivating account of life on Alcatraz given by former inmates, correctional officers and residents, that really brings the history of Alcatraz to life in an extraordinary way. It is informative, exciting and suspenseful, especially given that it is told by the actual people who experienced it: the prisoners and the guards themselves. What a fascinating account of a much dramatized subject! Visitors also learn about life on the island from the resident guards’ families, even for the children who caught the ferry in the mornings to go to school in San Francisco, then return back to the island in the afternoons.
Visitors can explore many areas of the cell house, the prison library, kitchen and showers, as well as the recreation yard, which is largely a thick expanse of grey concrete pitted by the salty air. But the cell house itself is one of the most interesting parts of the tour. Tourists cannot help staring through the metal bars at the dreary little cells that housed the inmates. It was a cold dismal place reserved for those incorrigible prisoners, including the notorious Al “Scarface” Capone, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, “Doc” Barker, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz” among others. Tourists learn about the attempted escapes, the notable inmates and general prison life. One of the prominent rules was: “You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention. Anything else you get is a privilege.” (Number 5, Alcatraz Prison Rules and Regulations, 1934)
Though the story of Alcatraz Island is rather bleak and disturbing, it is a notable part of history. One cannot help thinking about the prison’s former occupants and wondering what it must have been like to be sequestered on this rock. It is easy to understand how some of the inmates were gripped by island fever and obsessed with escaping at all costs. Alcatraz is a worthwhile visit to anyone interested in learning about its history, as well as to those seeking to dispel its many myths. As the ferry departs from the island’s wharf to take tourists back to the pier after a visit, one feels a sobering sense of freedom and a quiet relief upon leaving this lonely outcrop in the San Francisco Bay.
Previously published in www.TotsandTravel.com, 2012.