One of the top things to see in San Francisco is Alcatraz! One of the worlds most famous prisons and apart from someone who’s just been ‘sent down’ for 10 years, who wouldn’t want to see the inside of a prison! We’ve seen Sean Connery in ‘The Rock’ and it looks fab – let’s go!
With 4 weeks until we fly into San Francisco, I get an email from my sister who lives there to tell me to book my tickets online and ‘well in advance’ as it’s virtually impossible to pitch up at the ticket office on the day and get tickets for that day / that week! Online I go and £40 later i’ve got two tickets. We’ve gone for a lunchtime crossing to the Island as at this time of year, the fog hangs around the San Francisco Bay until 11am. Well, we do want a nice clear, sunny day for our trip!
We’re staying in San Mateo, about 15 miles South of the city and we decide to get the train in and then walk to the pier where our boat will leave (doesnt look to far on our little tourist map of the city). We’ve completely underestimated the size of SF as its taken us an hour to walk to the pier – we just have a short time to explore the touristy Pier 39 (Fishermans Wharf), grab a drink and head for the boat.
For some random Tuesday in September, it’s mighty busy at the Alcatraz Boat Pier. Hundreds of people are queuing up for the 11.30 boat and 12.00 boat. A sign at the booking office says ‘tour fully booked until 24th September’ – thats over a week away! At Noon, we board the boat and we’re off to Alcatraz!
Its a 15 min (1.5 mile) boat ride to Alcatraz and the Island grows in size and becomes clearer as we near it – it’s bigger than I thought it would be and has quite a lot of big brick buildings on it (the island is 22 acres in size). Originally the island had a lighthouse on it and then in 1868 the military used is as a military prison and then from 1933 to 1963 it was changed to a federal prison.
As we get off the boat, we are greeted by ‘Ranger John’ who tells us a bit of background to the Island and prison and tells us to pick up our tour headsets at the top of the hill where the main cell block is. What a great job he has! It’s a lovely clear sunny day and the views of SF on one side and The Golden Gate Bridge on the other are great.
As we enter the main cell block, we pick up our headsets, turn them on and listen to the shouting and screaming of prisoners from a time gone by. Through the processing area, shower room, canteen we walk listening to stories from actual prisoners and guards. Most of it is fairly tame. Into the main cell area we go and I’m impressed by how it looks with about 6 long rows of cells, 3 stories high built within the large brick building. The cells are all pretty much empty apart from a few which have been ‘staged’ to show you how it would have been when the prison was in operation. I’m actually quite taken by the prison, it looks a lot nicer than I thought it would. The rooms are an okay size and there’s a lot of light coming into the building from barred windows high above. I decided that cell 315 is a good one with lots of natural light and views of the bay!!
One interesting fact is the occupancy rate of Alcatraz. During its time as a federal prison, Alcatraz held an average of 260 prisons – When it was a military garrison, it held over 200 soldiers! Alcatraz would usually be 50% full, not like Barlinnie Prison in Glasgow which usually runs at an occupancy rate any Glasgow hotel would be proud of….must be all the returning /repeat guests!
Our audio tour informs us Alcatraz would take all the problem prisoners from other prisons in the States. Many prisoners would be notorious bank robbers or murderers (i.e. Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, and Robert Stroud (The Birdman of Alcatraz). Funnily enough, although Robert Stroud was known as the birdman of Alcatraz, he wasn’t actually allowed to keep any birds at Alcatraz. He got his nickname during his stretch at Leavenworth Penitentiary where he reared and sold birds and became a respected ornithologist!
There were numerous prison riots and fights in Alcatraz and it was a dangerous place to work / serve your sentence. 8 inmates were murdered by other inmates. We hear of the battle of Alcatraz where a number of convicts were plotting to escape by overpowering a guard on the ground floor walkway and then using an ingenious home made ‘bar gap widener’ managed to get up into the 3rd floor gun gallery when it was unmanned and then overpowered the guard on his return (thus preventing any more guards coming into the gun gallery and shooting down at them). From here, the convicts took a number of guards prisoner and they intended to find the keys to the outside door and using guards as cover take the daily boat by storm and sail to the mainland. However, the convicts we thwarted as they couldn’t find the keys to the yard door or any other outside door as the keys weren’t where they were supposed to be as one of the guards had kept them on his person to make it easier to let kitchen staff out. The convicts soon found the keys but the door jammed and the escape turned into a hostage scenario. With the prison service trying to regain control, the convicts started to fire on the guards, killing 3 of them. The stand off remained for some time until the prisoners, realising that they weren’t going to win, agreed to surrender. In the aftermath, 2 prisoners were executed for their role in ‘The Battle For Alcatraz’.
Over the years, 36 prisoners tried to escape from Alcatraz. All but 5 were recaptured or accounted for. 3 who were not accounted for broke out at the same time in June 1962. The men tunnelled through the brickwork of their cells with spoon handles and then moved up into the main ventilation shaft and onto the roof. From there, they made it down and over the fences to the waters edge and off they went in a home made raft. Whilst the prison service would have you think that escape from Alcatraz was impossible and that all 3 men would have drowned, the fact remains that the raft was found on Angel Island with the paddles and a bag of personal effects. To date, no bodies have ever been found! The escape was immortalised forever by Clint Eastwood in the movie, Escape From Alcatraz.
Alcatraz was closed in 1963 as the buildings were deteriorating and the prison was becoming very expensive to run.
As we make our way out of the prison, amusingly enough ‘through the gift shop exit’, we see an old chap sitting at a table, signing books. He’s Bill Baker, an ‘ex con’ and one of the last Alcatraz inmates. He’s written a book ‘Alcatraz 1259’ (as this was his inmate number) and he visits most days to talk to tourists and sign his book for them. He’s 80 and has spent a large part of his life in prison (he was caught counterfeiting). Once again, we’re reminded of the strength of the human spirit as here’s a man that has taken the bad events of his past to make a positive impact on his future. That aside, the irony isn’t lost on us……an ex con, now free, choosing to spend his final days back in the institution that incarcerated him for many years!