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Thursday, July 14, 2011

My First Trip to Alcatraz Island

It took over two decades to get me out to Alcatraz Island and I have to say it's nothing at all like what I expected! I thought it would be dark, dreary and depressing like a dungeon inside. Surprisingly it was well lit and while the cells were small it wasn't even close to as bad as I'd envisioned. Also, surprisingly there is a lot of flora and fauna to enjoy on the island.

Best known as the home of the penitentiary where the worst of America's worst prisoners were locked away, and also known as "The Rock," Alcatraz was used as a military prison as early as 1861. From 1934 to 1963 it became a federal prison housing between approximately 200-300 prisoners at a time including some of the country's most notorious criminals like Al Capone, George Machine Gun Kelley, Robert Stroud (aka The Birdman of Alcatraz), Alvin "Creepy" Karpis and Arthur R. "Doc" Barker.

Arriving at Alcatraz island

The large, light yellow building to the left contained the residential apartments for people employed at the prison. The building to the lower right was the guardhouse and military chapel later used as bachelor's quarters. At the top you can see the main prison cell house. It's the large long building that extends behind the trees just to the right of the lighthouse.

We arrived on the Hornblower Hybrid, a cool and very modern ferry. It's the nation's first hybrid ferry in operation. It uses solar, wind, grid electricity and diesel generators to power the ferry back and forth across the bay.

Four Tips:
  1. Book ahead online. The ferry rides sell out and if you wait until the day of it's very likely you won't be able to buy a seat. Tickets are offered 3 months in advance with most time slots selling out a week ahead.
  2. Make sure the ferry you take actually stops on the island. The Hornblower ferries do, other companies don't. My friend Harpreet learned the hard way that some boats simply circle the island as part of a Bay cruise then head back to land.
  3. There are not enough chairs for everyone to sit during the ride so if you don't want to be standing taking photos along the rail be sure to get in line early so you're able to grab a seat.
  4. The ride can be choppy so be sure to take Dramamine, wear your wristbands or a medicated patch if you suffer from motion sickness.

Upon our arrival the imagery proved a bit intimidating, especially the tall, dark watch tower which would have contained armed guards.

In total six prisoners were shot and killed trying to escape from the prison, two made it far enough to drown and 23 were captured. Two of those captured were later executed for their part in the infamous "Battle of Alcatraz" a clever, brazen and failed escape attempt that resulted in the deaths of both correctional officers and inmates.

But there is also beauty. This building was the Officer's Club that at one time had magnificent views of the Easy Bay. Even falling down I thought the imagery through where the windows used to be was quite beautiful.

This was my favorite part of the whole tour. It turns out Alcatraz Island is one of the two main west coast nesting grounds of the Western Gull. There were literally baby seagull chicks EVERYWHERE! Because there are no predators on the island the birds build their nests anywhere they feel like it.

The babies are so cute! Look at this little one stretching its wings.

And even funnier is when they stretch while lying down. This little baby was stretching its legs and wing all at the same time.

There are 11 sea gull chicks in these photos.

See them?

Also nesting on the island are Snowy Egrets, Black Crowned Night Heron, Brandt's Comorant, Pigeon Guillemot and other various sea birds.

Soon it was time to end my wildlife excursion and head up to the cell blocks.

The Main Prison entrance was imposing. I don't think you can help but to imagine what it must have felt like walking into the prison knowing you would be there for years and years.

Immediately inside were showers and the station where prisoners would pick up their prison belongings like bedding and clothes. After coming around the showers we were offered audio recorders (available in several languages) and headsets to take the free, self-guided, audio tour as we walked through the prison.

This is "Broadway" the central walkway between cell rows B and C.

The corridors between the cell blocks have names like "Broadway," "Michigan Avenue," "Park Avenue," "Sunrise Alley" to the East and the "Sunset Strip" to the west. At the end of the prison under the clock, near the cafeteria and entrance to the yard was called "Times Square." I'm not sure who gave these names, the prison officials or the prisoners themselves.

The skylights surprised me immediately changing my perception of the prison as a dark and dank medieval kind of place. It was really bright that day though I'm sure on cloudy days the light would be considerably less.

The prison consists of five aisles that contain four cell blocks, each three tiers high. Cell Block A was standard sized cells used infrequently to house special prisoners who needed extreme segregation. Blocks B and C were standard cells where the general population was housed and Cell Block D contained the segregation and isolation cells.

Between different cell blocks are short hallways called "Cutoffs."

As you begin the audio tour it will direct you to signs on some of the walls that describe notable people and events such as the most notorious prisoners ever housed at Alcatraz, details about the "Battle of Alcatraz" escape attempt in 1946, and the famous "Escape from Alcatraz" that was later made into a movie starring Clint Eastwood.

The audio tour was recorded by both ex-prisoners and guards who spent time on "The Rock." Their recollections and voices add an eerie element to the recording.

Cell #113 is an example of a standard cell.

Each 5' x 9' cell was painted a white and a minty green and contained a metal bed frame, toilet, a single lightbulb, a wash basin that provided only cold water, two types of shelves and a ventilation vent.

We were only able to walk past and into cells on the ground level.

A furnished cell shows some of the belongings prisoners were able to keep though they could quickly lose these privileges at any time.

Books, paintings, art supplies, and musical instruments were allowed.

The prison Recreation Yard faces west so it receives the worst of the wind coming in off the Bay. Even on a sunny summer day it can be cold in San Francisco so during the winter time it must have been brutal to spend time out in the yard. Even so the audio tour said men would do just that. It must have been the closest they felt to freedom being under the sky and out from behind the metal bars that enclosed them when they were in their cells.

The walkway in front of D Block was named the "Sunset Strip."

D Block is where the most difficult prisoners were housed. There were 36 segregation cells and 6 solitary confinement cells aka "The Hole."

The prisoners held in this block could see the colors of the sunset stream in through the windows facing their cells and those on the top two tiers could even see San Francisco across the Bay. They'd see the city lights at night and could hear the sounds of music and voices on passing boats and ships. One might think the prisoners would have welcomed the reminders of freedom D block offered but in actuality the Sunset Strip was considered a form of torture to see what they couldn't have.

On the plus side the segretation cells were larger (19 instead of 9 feet deep) than the standard cells on Cell Blocks B and C. On the minus side being in one meant that you were locked up 24 hours a day only allowed out one hour each week in the recreation yard and twice a week for quick showers.

At first glance you would think the larger cells might be more desirable but in actuality most prisoners preferred the smaller cells in the general population where human interaction and creating friendships were possible. Some prisoners spent decades housed alone in their cells on D Block.

The six Solitary Confinement cells at the end of Cell Block D were small, dark and inhumane. Each cell is set behind a solid steel door that initially had a small slit in it that could be opened to allow in a sliver of light but were often kept closed 24/7. Five of the cells contained a sink and toilet. One called the "Strip Cell" had steel walls and only a hole in the floor for prisoners to use as a toilet.

In all of the Solitary Confinement cells prisoners clothing was usually taken away, they were fed restricted rations of bread and water with a full meal every few days and only given a mattress to sleep on at night. In the morning the mattresses were removed.

Some were beaten or tortured and some literally went insane after spending too much time isolated in these cells.

As you walk through the cell blocks you can only shudder as you imagine what it must have been like to live there.

The now empty library with Cell Block C in the backdrop.

The library is located at the end of blocks C and D with entrances from both the "Sunset Strip" (D Block) and "Park Ave." (C Block).

You can see the library with books and shelves in the movie "Escape from Alcatraz."

Light streams in through the library windows.

Just around the corner from the library are the visitation booths.










We then walked outside and caught a view of the beautiful "Rose Terrace" garden just outside the cell blocks. You may be surprised to learn the gardens of Alcatraz are quite special.

In the 1920's the military began a beautification project using prisoners to plant and tend to hundreds of trees and shrubs and pounds of seeds creating many formal gardens around the island. They were tended to until 1963 when the prison was closed.

It wasn't until 2003 that the Garden Conservancy, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and National Park Service decided to restore the gardens to their former glory. Surprisingly, many of the non native plants had survived forty years of neglect beneath the overgrowth including roses thought to be extinct.

Next we toured the Administration Building and the main entrance to the prison facing San Francisco where one can view the lighthouse and the rubble piles of some of the buildings that burned down during the Indian (Native American) occupation/reclamation of the island from 1969 to 1971 after the penitentiary had been closed.

Back inside we were directed back to view two of the cells used in the famous "The Great Escape from Alcatraz" by prisoners Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers John and Clarence.

It took approximately two years for the three prisoners to dig out the ventilation grates in their cells, hiding their work in progress by using paper mache grates. They also made paper mache heads with real human hair saved from the barber shop and planned an escape route through the utility corridor behind their cells that would lead them out to the roof where they then climbed down the exterior of the building entering the water to swim over to Angel Island using a small, blow up raft to help float them across the Bay.

A fourth accomplice was unsuccessful in escaping his cell in time. The guards didn't realize the trio was gone until the following morning giving them plenty of time to cross the Bay. Whether or not they were successful or drowned will, most likely, forever remain a mystery.

Alcatraz was known for having the best food in the penitentiary system.

Working in the kitchen must have been a job given to only the most trusted inmates as it gave them access to knives. You can see the knife cabinet at the end of the work table. The silhouette of each knife was painted within the cabinet so guards could tell at a glance if any knives were missing.

The Dining Hall

The tour mentioned one incident, the infamous "Spaghetti Riot" where the prisoners staged an uprising in the dining hall. Warden James Johnston had always upheld a standard of good food in the cafeteria because he knew it would help to quell dissension among the prisoners.

Warden Swope who took over when Johnston retired didn't follow his example and in the 1950's the prisoners got fed up with the bland spaghetti dinners they were receiving. When they were served spaghetti yet again, one started a table and food tossing riot. Though the cafeteria was equipped with tear gas canisters the guards brought the riot to a halt when a guard fired his shot gun into the air.

Goodbye Alcatraz!

A quick recap and our tour was over. We exited through the gift shop and headed back outside to catch the ferry back to San Francisco.

My thanks to our house guests Chris and Cara who treated us to this fun adventure! We took the 9:30 AM ferry to Angel Island followed by our stop to Alcatraz.

It's worth noting that most of the parking in proximity to the Hornblower launch site at Pier 33 runs around $25 for the day. If you don't mind walking several blocks less expensive parking is available.

I'll be recapping the Angel Island tour at a later date. I had too many photos to include them here. We took the Angel Island tour, had lunch on the island then re-boarded the Honrblower Hybrid to Alcatraz arriving around 12:30 PM and leaving at 3:30. Ferry's depart back to San Francisco until 6:10 PM and you can board any one you choose, staying as long as you want on the island provided you leave by closing time.

• Visit the Alcatraz Cruises website by CLICKING HERE
• You can check out their rates and schedules by CLICKING HERE
• Purchase tickets by CLICKING HERE

More San Francisco Tourism Suggestions:

Walking Across the Golden Gate Bridge
The California Academy of Sciences

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