I arrived in San Francisco on Sunday night and went to Alcatraz on Monday morning. I’d booked the ticket online before leaving Australia, so all I had to do was walk to the pier, about 15 minutes from my accommodation in Fisherman’s Wharf, and board the ferry.
Alcatraz is best known for its time as a maximum security prison, but it has a varied past. It was built as a fort and lighthouse station around the time of the Californian goldrush and during the Civil War it served as part of the military defenses of the city of San Francisco and as a military prison. The army also used Alcatraz to house Indians and military convicts in the last half of the nineteenth century. By 1907 however, it was obsolete and decommissioned by the Army.
Alcatraz reopened as a prison in 1934, when the government was looking for somewhere to house hardened criminals, reoffenders, escapees and the infamous, like Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly. Over 1500 men did time on Alatraz, and conditions were hard. Rule number 5 stated that “you are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Anything else you get is a privilege” and that included work, book and visitors.
Visitors to the island can now do an award winning audio tour, narrated by former guards and inmates. It takes you through the remaining prison buildings and includes some of the colourful stories of escape attempts and prison life.
The cells are small – I could touch both walls with my arms outstretched – and sparsely furnished with a bed, a small built-in table and stool, and a toilet. The cell doors are bars; no privacy there, or in the shower block, which is completely open. The recreation space is a concrete wasteland, but men used it to play baseball and a form of bridge, and would stay out there for hours if they could, despite very cold weather.
While the conditions were harsh, the setting of the prison is stunning; surrounded by water, only a mile or so from the mainland, with gorgeous views in all directions. Ironically, being so close to real life made it harder for the prisoners, and there were 14 escape attempts. Officially, none succeeded; although the swim isn’t that far, the water is very cold all year round, and the currents are strong and treacherous. However, Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers may have gotten away in 1962. The official record has them presumed drowned but no bodies were ever found.
Alcatraz closed as a penitentiary in 1963 due to increasing costs and the need for extensive work on the buildings if it was to continue operating. In the late 1960s it was occupied several times by American Indians as a political protest. Although the authorities eventually removed the protesters, it come to be seen as a landmark protest.
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