Picture living on a beautiful island only a short boat ride away. It’s a great fantasy to get away to such an island. I’ve always had a romantic fascination with islands. There’s just something about the seclusion, exclusivity and solitude that creates a mystique with broad appeal. But Alcatraz?
In spite of my curiosity, for some reason I’ve always avoided going to the infamous island prison – but I finally made the trip and I’m glad I did.
There are several daily departures to Alcatraz from Pier 33 on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. I opted for the $31 All Day Tour with a pre-scheduled morning departure, leaving me free to choose my own return. The boat was packed to capacity for the voyage of less than a half hour.
When we disembarked, passengers were herded to an open plaza area for an orientation lecture. The day I was there, a special guest also said a few words. He had been locked up there some decades ago and told us about conditions when the prison was operational. The real reason he was there however, was to sell us a book he wrote about his incarceration. He would autograph it too. I didn’t buy one, but a lot of people did.
I learned that occupation and use of Alcatraz has evolved over the years. Originally it was visited by indigenous peoples and later by Mexicans. Increased marine traffic during the California Gold Rush prompted construction of a lighthouse. During the Civil War, it became a strategic fort and finally, in the early 1900’s, it was repurposed as the “U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, Pacific Branch” – in other words, a military prison.
Following World War I, the War Department transferred ownership to the Justice Department and it became a federal penitentiary. The prison boasted a hardcore population, including such infamous characters as Robert Stroud, aka the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Al “Scarface” Capone.
A few years after the prison closed in 1963, it became the site of a struggle between several Native American Tribes and the U.S. Government. This conflict was eventually resolved and ownership now resides with the National Park Service.
The reputation of this unique landmark appeals to visitors from all over the world. I got a real sense of the worldwide interest by listening to conversations and doing a little surreptitious people watching.
Short historical video presentations were constantly repeating in the main building in several languages and self-guiding information booklets were available in many languages as well.
After the video, I stood in line to get an audio device allowing me to stroll around the entire compound at my own pace while listening to commentary about selected points of interest. The devices were available in several languages at no extra charge.
The audio commentary highlighted some attempted escapes and detailed how each convict went about it. Areas where each incident occurred were stops on the audio tour. The bottom line is: nobody ever escaped and lived to tell about it. At least, not that anyone knows about.
I was free to wander throughout the cell blocks and go into the warden’s office, prisoner visitation area, dining room, and prison cells – even special solitary confinement cells. Standing in a cell felt strange and it was obvious this was a maximum security facility.
After a quick stop at the gift shop, I gazed at the nearby Golden Gate Bridge and thought of the old saying, “It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”