Be thankful that you are not spending the holidays here. While living on an island might sound appealing at first, this island is surrounded by cold water, is subjected to very chilly winds, and was once home to some poorly behaved criminals. Not regular criminals mind you – no one was ever sentenced to time on Alcatraz – these were criminals who proved to be especially naughty. Yes, this is an island for outcasts and you can visit its rugged terrain almost daily.
We know The Rock as a rough prison site where every man was for himself. Yet, that’s not how the island was originally utilized. The “Isla de Los Alcatraces” was first mapped by the Spanish in the late 1700’s. Translating to the “Island of the Pelicans”, the bird population was later joined by humans in the mid-1800’s. Thanks to the gold rush, California became quite popular and it was thought that the coastline needed extra protection. Thus, Alcatraz was used as a military site to watch over the San Francisco Bay. When the Civil War was in full swing, a Confederate ship was even captured and it’s inhabitants were imprisoned on the island. Then Hopi Indians were imprisoned here for not assimilating. Then U.S. Soldiers were imprisoned for committing crimes in the Philippines. See a trend? While the island was set out to be a fort, it seemed like an awfully great place to sequester folks who didn’t follow the rules. The original use as a watchtower during war times was no longer necessary. Plus, it was found that most of its weapons were outdated and functioned poorly. Good thing the coastline wasn’t really in danger after all.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons officially took over in 1933 and its cellblock doors opened – I mean, closed – in 1934. Alcatraz housed many challenging prisoners. These guys began at other facilities and proved to be so badly behaved that they had to be removed from the general population and thrown on an island. Famous names include Al Capone and Robert “Birdman” Stroud. Capone himself was even stabbed during his approximately four years here. This was the place where top notch gangsters got shanked. Capone survived just fine and was later transferred to the Terminal Island prison facility in Southern California. There are other lovely stories of riots killing both guards and inmates. Several attempts were made to escape, but most were caught, killed, or drowned. Per rumors, only one attempt may have been successful but that’s just heresay.
When the inmates were not fighting or plotting, they played softball in the yard and performed manual labor to maintain the facility. Even though these guys were the bad of the bad, no executions ever took place on the island. Prisoners were sent to mainland facilities if their sentence called for that final step.
Now you would think that non-criminals would stay away from the island of misfit prisoners. Nope. Those who worked on the island, lived on the island. With their families. Many raised their children here which meant schooling, recreation, and everyday living took place on Alcatraz. Just a few feet away from killers. Charming.
The site ran as a U.S. Penitentiary until 1963 and evolved into the tourist attraction it is today. For about $30 you can take the boat from Alcatraz Landing at Pier 33 and sail to this notorious spot. Allow yourself about 3 hours, although you can easily spend the whole day here. The audio tour comes with your ticket price and is quite intriguing. Interviews from both guards and inmates make the visit very tangible. The concrete corridors are cold, the cells are bare, and the stories are eerie. Late at night, the inmates could hear the party boats sail by. A reminder – especially during the holidays – that life and good times floated by without them.
Expect an uphill hike from the dock, this is a giant ‘rock’ that requires some effort. There is a small shuttle that helps those with extra needs, but it is limited. If you want to walk on the wild side, there is a night tour. It also includes the audio tour which winds you around the cellhouse and portions of the grounds. The night tour also includes other special presentations and I have heard its worth the higher cost if you aren’t afraid of the dark. Good note: there have been no authenticated ghost encounters on the island. Just a whole lot of creepy. To avoid the classic San Francisco fog, go early in the year. By summer, you will get socked in and miss out on the amazing views of the Bay.
When we visited earlier this year, there was a female author speaking about her book on reformed murderers. She had interviewed a handful of convicted killers and shared their stories of supposed growth. They were now living semi-normal lives, some with families. She was set up in the old dining hall and much to my dismay, a couple of her reformed buddies were with her. Forgive me, but that got too real. I already felt that Alcatraz was a bit creepy, fascinating but creepy. So I whimped out and just shuffled to the next spot on the audio tour. Good for her, though, and I hope those guys continue to stay on the right path.
Murderers aside, it was still a great tour and if you are in San Francisco, I recommend a visit. Whether you are curious about its military roots, want to experience its dark side as a federal prison, or wish to just see the Bay from an amazing vantage point, Alcatraz is a cool spot to explore. By the way, the bird population still thrives and the gardens continue to bloom. Not everything about The Rock is rough. Bundle up, though. The breeze has a bite. Good reminder to not stay too long.