The notorious Alcatraz Island is located 1.5miles from mainland San Francisco. In the 19th century it was a US military base and prison and then a maximum high-security Federal Penitentiary from 1933 until the 21st of March 1963. For 29 years it housed ‘the worst of the worst’ offenders at the time from across the United States. The most famous inmates who spent time on the Rock where Alphonse ’Scarface’ Capone, Alvin Karpis, George “Machine-Gun Kelly and Arthur ‘Doe’ Barker and Alvin ‘Creepy’ Karpavicz. It housed two to three hundred prisoners at a time and was known as the inescapable prison. After it closed down, the Rock was occupied by American Indians in 1969 and finally in 1972 became part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area.
It took 20min from Pier 33 by ferry to get to the island. It seemed so close from the shore, however when we were on the ferry we realised how cold and windy it was. This small island is surrounded by incredibly cold water with extremely strong currents. The temperature on Alcatraz seemed a lot lower than on the mainland. The wind was chilling me to my bones. We walked a short distance to the main gate where we were met by a National Park ranger and told a little bit of history of Alcatraz followed by some practical information. After that we picked up our free self-guide audio tour. We were in for a surprise – this turned out to be by far the best audio tour ever.
We were ‘guided’ through the prison and given detailed explanations and stories about each section. We listened about daily prison life, escape attempts and riots, about the psychological impact of the close proximity of San Francisco on the prisoners (the wind often brought sounds from the mainland: music, people laughing, partying, normal life). How this was the real punishment for these men in isolation. The audio tour took us throughout the main blocks of the cell house, the library, the warden’s office, visitation room and kitchen/dining room. Narrated by former officers and prisoners, they also used subtle sound effects that gave us the impression of listening to an old radio show. I found the stories they told interesting.
Some corridors seemed deserted and very eerie. The cell house was simply depressing and scary but the grounds around the prison were beautiful with an unusual array of plants and birds and scenic views of San Francisco across the water.
Up to this day, there were no confirmed prisoner escapes from Alcatraz. Officially, a total of fourteen attempts to escape were made by 36 inmates. 23 were captured. Six shot to death. Two drowned. Five went missing with no bodies ever recovered. ‘Officially’ no man escaped the island, however warrants for their arrest are still active (these expire on their 100th birthday). The most famous escape happened on 11th of June 1962 when three men (Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin) broke out of their cells and vanished through holes dug (with spoons) through the ventilation grates and the 6.5inches thick walls in their cells, leaving behind paper mache heads with real human hair (saved from the barber shop). It must have taken them two years to dig their way out. The 1979 movie ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ starring Clint Eastwood as Frank Morris is a dramatic retelling of the story of the escape
Did they make it? Personally I believe that they managed to escape, after all, there’s the annual Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon where hundreds complete the 1.5mile swim.
Tours of Alcatraz are widely popular. We were told multiple times that it is impossible to buy tickets on the day. I heard that the nighttime tour is a different and a very eerie experience and worth doing. I had wanted to visit Alcatraz island since I saw The Rock with Sean Connery back in 1996. I admit that the tour exceeded my expectations. We booked (again: well in advance) one of the first tours in the morning. It wasn’t a good idea. It was cold. No, it was freaking freezing. The middle of the day when it’s warmer would have been a better idea. Anyway, if you are in San Francisco you need to visit Alcatraz. At least once.
We were happy to be able escape the island and it’s bone deep cold after a couple of hours. After a short ferry trip we were back to (almost) balmy San Francisco with many, many coffee shops serving delicious hot liquid.