We arrive at the pier on Sunday Morning in plenty of time to catch the boat to Alcatraz. There are a lot of people milling about, and the “wait for ticket line” is long….Again, thankful we had wifi, and that I got my tickets early! It was Easter Sunday, and imagine who shows up just before we leave the dock!? Did much better than I would have on that paddle board!
For years this prison has been on my bucket list of things to see up close and personal. I’m not sure if it was all the movies, or the fascination that such a place existed that was so close, and yet so isolating for the prisoners. I’m not the only one with a fascination, over a million people visit the island each year.
The weather was perfect for our tour. After disembarking , there is a very steep walk up the hill and into an admission room where prisoners were first taken when they arrived. There they showered, were deloused and given a “new” set of cloths. We were given a system with headphones in which we could listen to stories and explanations from the people that lived there, guards, inmates and yes, children. They LIVED Alcatraz.
It wasn’t always a Prison. The U.S. Army considered Alcatraz as a great defensive position for the bay and started to build a fort in 1853. Construction started with a wharf, shops, housing and offices. The island was very rocky, and rugged and they used that to their advantage in creating tall walls around the island. The lighthouse, which was the first on the West Coast, was completed in 1854. In 1861, the island was officially used as the military prison, which covered the area from the Rocky Mountains and West.
In 1933 the army was convinced that Alcatraz was to expensive to operate and talks began for the transfer to the Bureau of Prisons. J. Edgar Hoover pushed to have a prison where the inmates could be controlled easily, escape would be impossible ( or was it?) and instill fear into anyone favoring the criminal side of life. It was at that time that it became the prison that it is most famous for – The Rock! One warden is reported as telling new inmates, “If you disobey the rules of society, they send you to prison; if you disobey the rules of the prison, they send you to US”
I told my Uncle that I would get my photo by Al Capone’s Cell, but the truth is he was in different cells during his stay there, including solitary confinement. When Al Capone came to the realization that he would be treated like the rest of the prisoners on Alcatraz, he said, “It looks like Alcatraz has got me licked.” Apparently they used to have the names on cells, but now, not only are the names gone, but the cell numbers appear to be out of order. Some cells did have stories posted to them, and narrations gave more information.
I realize that time and weather can damage anything, and does it so much quicker with the salty ocean playing its part. Alcatraz is deteriorating rapidly. The rust is eating away anything in its path, and the cement is crumbling after years of weathering abuse.
And just like everything else that is old, and has history, the public wants these type of sites to remain, as do I. And so for future generations to enjoy its history and the stories for years to come, restoration is on going. However I am happy that we were able to see MOST of it as it stands today, without the new white wash, without being fixed, and too modernized.
I have to admit, I was a little disappointed to say the least that I was not able to climb to the top of the bleachers in the exercise yard to see the view of San Francisco the “kings” of inmates had, although I can only imagine it added to the misery of being locked up. On New Years Eve if the weather was just so, inmates could hear the festivities on the mainland – a reminder of one more year behind bars completed. Inmates that were well behaved had privileges such as keeping the prison garden tended to. The door out of the yard is where these compliant prisoners were able to temporarily escape the confinements of the cement walls and work in the prisons garden. They would exit the exercise yard, travel down approximately 100 concrete steps to the garden, the whole time under the watchful eyes of guards, that carried loaded rifles! Although still confined, I can’t imagine the freedom, the freshness they must have felt leaving through that door.
Volunteers now keep the gardens in beautiful condition year round. No guards, rifles or locked gates needed.
Of course safety must be a concern, and there are areas that are closed now due to hazards, however…they were all such grand buildings, from the cell blocks, to administration buildings and the apartments that the guards and their families lived. The Wardens house must have been a magnificent place to live, looking at the skeleton of the building, you can only imagine the splendor it once was.
Another building that was built as the Military Post Exchange was turned into a Social Hall. It was used for a variety of events for the civilians that worked on the island. Again just a shell of a building, but one can imagine the festivities, and the grandeur of such a building from what remains.
It was not only prisoners that lived on the Alcatraz. Guards and their families also made the island their home. However, families were restricted to where they could go on the island when inmates were not in their cells. Not all the inmates were hardened criminals. Those that were there for things such as treason, desertion etc. were locked up, but also could earn privileges such as cook, clean and sometimes even babysit for the families that lived there. The children that were of school age would board a boat each morning to attend school in San Francisco. There are plenty of good reads about children on Alcatraz Island. It sounds as though it would be a fascinating way to grow up, and knowing who, and where the criminals were , and knowing there was gun protection at all times, probably a safer place to live than in San Francisco.
Touring through the cell house, the library, the mess hall, and offices was so interesting, the stories that we listened to on the head sets gave you directions to specific areas, and explained the relevance to that area in the case of riots, an escape or two attempted, where grenades were dropped through the roof during the Battle of Alcatraz in 1946 and such. They do have a couple cells that are opened, for photo ops I would imagine. I did enter into a solitary confinement cell… and even though both doors were opened, it was such an eerie feeling standing in there. Maybe it was knowing the physiological hell some men went through while spending time in the hole. Nineteen days was the maximum allowable to spend in the hole, other than at meal times, it was 19 days of darkness and complete silence. In the morning when breakfast was delivered you put your bedding between the barred door and the solid steel door, and there it stayed until night, nothing but the springs on the bed, a toilet and sink. Don’t get me wrong, I know people go to prison for a reason, and in reality, maybe it should be a little more like that now! I snapped a quick photo and got the hell out of there!
My opinion as that maybe prisons should go back to the way they were, basics of survival, especially for those repeat offenders. I can not believe how many prisons we drove past, or near too on this trip. And some sit on prime real estate, such as San Quentin …what a waste of ocean side property THAT is! I highly recommend this trip to anyone that is going to be in the San Francisco area. BOOK EARLY, and enjoy the experience. Alcatraz Island Federal Penitentiary ran from 1934 to 1963. After 29 years Alcatraz closed on March 21, 1963. The island was then occupied by Native Americans from 1969 through 1971 and taken over by the National Park Service in 1972.
The experience of going to Alcatraz was something that will stay with me for a long time. Crossed off my Bucket List!
Next on our San Francisco agenda, Pier 39 and a flashback to the ’60’s !