It was a last minute decision to visit Alcatraz, so I was really fortunate to get the Alcatraz ferry tickets.
You can buy tickets directly from the Alcatraz Cruises website. There are various ticket options – ‘early bird’ which departs at 845am, or the day and night tours. You can choose to stay longer on the island, of course, using the self-guided audio tour which is included in your ticket. I took the 930am slot and left the island before 1 pm. I think there was ample time to cover the facilities. There are other longer guided tours if you are interested, such as the ‘Behind the Scenes’ tours.
I didn’t buy my tickets directly from the website because it was so last minute, that there weren’t any morning slots left the weekend I was in San Francisco. I booked my trip to The Rock as a combo ticket with another tour – San Francisco Bay Sightseeing Cruise. Combo tours would be the only alternative you have to visit The Rock if you didn’t book your direct Alcatraz tours in advance. But it is not a bad thing – in my case, I get to do two of the best things in San Francisco in one day – The Rock and also a fast boat ride under the Golden Gate Bridge!
You start your journey at Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing. Here, you can find a ticket booth, a gift shop, and a cafe. They have a well organised queuing system for the ferry – there is set timing for people to enter the queue, depending on your departure time. The gift shop is quite nice. There is one on the island itself – but I think it’s worthwhile to look here too. I didn’t see some of the pieces I saw here on the island.
I was very early so waited for a bit with a hot coffee, and egg burger/muffin whatever you call it – not many choices to choose from, if you don’t eat meat, but good enough. It was nice to take a bit of a breather after the late-night flight into San Francisco the day before.
It is a short and pleasant 15 minutes journey to Alcatraz. You get a gorgeous view of the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge and of course The Rock from the water. From this distance (see picture below), you can’t really tell it’s a prison. The island is a short distance from the bay, a good size for a small retreat, and just look at that view! Of course you probably won’t have that same feeling approaching the island, if you were just sentenced to prison here.
I got really excited as we neared the island – remembering scenes from the movie The Rock (starring Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage). Yeap – that old 1996 movie – a long, long time ago.
The island is now part of the national park. When you disembark from the boat, a park ranger will give a bit of brief about Alcatraz history and layout. A few interesting facts
- No inmate officially escaped the island alive. A few tried but were recaptured. There were a few inmates who jumped into the water but never resurfaced and were presumed dead.
- The prison had to be closed down in 1963 due to funding issues. Yeap keeping a facility on an island is not cheap.
- Also – note the words on the building behind the ranger below ‘Indians Welcome…’. Between 1969-1971 (after Alcatraz prison was shut down 1963), the island was briefly occupied by American Indians under the claim that as per the Treaty of For Laramie (1868) signed between the US and the Lakota (native) people, any unused or abandoned land should be returned to the Native people who once occupied the land. You can also see the graffiti on the water tank – marking the times during the occupation.
- A number of officers and their families live on the island. There were also recollection by the officers’ children on how it was like to grow up on the island and commuting to school on the mainland on a daily basis.
I spent most of my hours here at the cell house. That line sounds weird. Anyway – the audio tour is excellent. You can walk at your own pace – visiting the cells, dining hall, library, the exercise yard etc. The audio tour shares stories told by the correctional officers who worked here, and the prisoners who served their sentences within the walls.
The Cell Blocks
The inmates were placed mainly in cells in Block B and C. There are 336 cells in B and C blocks, each measuring 5ft x 9ft. Each cell has a small bed, a sink with running water and a toilet.
Block A was not renovated so much from the days when it was a military prison. It was used on and off for brief holding of inmates before hearing or even to isolate prisoners from the rest for whatever reasons.
Block D (the ‘Treatment Unit’) houses the segregation cells and solitary confinement cells. The more dangerous and violent inmates in Block D are confined to their cells 24 hours a day except for one short visit per week to the recreation yard alone. For inmates with disciplinary issues – they will be sent to ‘The Hole’, cells 9-14 in Block D. These cells have limited light and colder than the normal prison cells. The inmates sent to The Hole were sometimes stripped, beaten and not given much food and just blankets (sometimes) to sleep. There are no beds in the cells – only a sink and a toilet. The last cell, which is cell #14 doesn’t even have a toilet – just a hole in the floor to serve as a toilet.
The corridors in the blocks were named after American landmarks – eg. Broadway – separating Blocks B and C, and Sunset Strip the corridor in Block D.
Dining (Mess) Hall & Kitchen
The mess hall has big windows – of course, all barred. The inmates were served three meals a day. The guards and inmates ate the same meals; so not surprising the food here was also quoted to be one of the best in the Federal prison system. The inmates had access to metal cutleries – therefore, to ensure safety, tear gas canisters are installed throughout the hall. They have never been used though. Another security measure was that all the cutleries were to be laid out on the tables so that they can be accounted for after each of the 20-minute meal.
The kitchen where the kitchen staff prepared the food is separated from the dining area with barred doors. In the second picture below, you see a part of the kitchen, and you can see how the kitchen knives were stored. To make sure that all the knives were accounted for – they were stored in a locked cabinet with clear black outline, which helped the officers to quickly scan through if any of them were missing after the cooks were done with them.
The inmates got to use the recreation area during the weekends (those working in the kitchens got their breaks during weekdays). They mostly play baseball, softball and chess. If you sit at the top of the side step, you get a view of the mainland.
There were limited activities for the inmates and having individual cells meant having a lot of time by yourself. The average literate inmate read 75-100 books a year – thanks to the well-stocked library which housed about up to 15,000 books. The inmates were not allowed in the library – they placed orders for the books based on the catalogue provided, and the books will then be sent to their cells by a librarian.
Inmates are allowed to receive visitors once a month. They connect via designated booths as per picture (via intercoms), and conversations are monitored by the correctional officers. Visitation is a privilege – and can be taken away if there is misconduct on the inmates part etc.
There were several escape attempts in Alcatraz. The biggest one was called the Battle of Alcatraz (2-4 May 1946) when a few inmates sieged the prison when their escape plan failed. Two guards and three inmates were killed, and many others injured. The siege ended when the marines got involved and started dropping grenades into the prison areas from the roof, to trap the inmates into a corner before coming in with their guns.
The most famous, at least in my book, was the famous gangster – Al Capone (also known as Scarface). He was convicted for Tax evasion. Interesting fact – Al Capone played the banjo in the Alcatraz band known as Rock Islander. Since he was stuck there, I guess he decided he may as well make the best out of it – as the saying goes ‘when life gives you lemons, make lemonade’.
There was also ‘The Birdman’ Robert Franklin Strout – whose life was depicted in the movie ‘The Birdman of Alcatraz’ – named as such due to his interest in canaries. He raised and bred them from his cell in Leavenworth prison. He also developed and sell homemade medicine for canaries which he sold via mail order. He even wrote a book about their illness that was published from a manuscript that was smuggled out from Leavenworth. He got a second book out ten years later. He was moved to Alcatraz after that. Due to his violent nature – Robert was sentenced to solitary confinement for many of his years in the various prisons (42 to be exact).
Mystery of Alcatraz
Well – at least it is a mystery to me. I was walking past the door in the administration building, when I looked up and saw this. I figured maybe it was left by one of the inmates during one of the escape attempts. Took a picture of it – but I cannot find any information about this ‘bloody’ print. (…scary music in the background…)
Time to Fly the Coop
It was a very informative and I have to say ‘fun’ morning. I am glad I managed to get a last minute ticket to the island. On that day, there was also a book signing session by an ex-inmate turned writer. So you can also look out for that, if you plan to visit. I also love the bookshop on the island but it was quite crowded with long queues.
I highly recommend a visit to Alcatraz to anyone who is travelling to San Francisco!