Visiting Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay
The famous, maximum-security federal prison, Alcatraz, sits in the clear light of San Francisco Bay, nowadays only populated by tourists and park service personnel. Most guidebooks agree that a visit to Alcatraz should be on the top of your list if you're in San Francisco and want to see the best of the city sights. You can get to Alcatraz easily via a ferry run from Pier 39 on the the inner harbor. The Blue and Gold Fleet are prominent on this route and charge $16. Ferries run about hourly. There are excellent audio-guided tours at Alcatraz narrated by former guards and prisoners. No overnight guests are allowed at the Island and you should plan your departure ferry in advance because once you finish with the tour there's not a lot to do.Alcatraz was military installation from 1850 to 1933 and served as the United States Disciplinary Barracks. The oldest of four cell blocks still has the flat-iron bars of the government prison era. By the age of the Great Depression and crdiminals like John Dillinger, the Federal Government needed a political statement about their dedication to crime control. The Department of Justice acquired Alcatraz on October 12, 1933 and island became a federal prison on August 11, 1934. The prison held those convicts that were high profile, or who had broken out of other prisons and so merited special security measures. During the three decades it served as a prison it held such notable criminals as Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz, and Alvin Karpis, who served more time at Alcatraz than any other inmate. Here is a link to Al Capone documents and photos pertaining to his stay at Alcatraz.
The prison was never filled to capacity, and in fact the older, flat-iron cell block from the military era was only used as a study area, with the other three, more modern cell blocks holding the prisoners were secured with carbon steel, tool-resistant bars. The walkway between the central cell blocks was deemed "Broadway" by the prisoners, where the new cons were walked through. The clock at the far end was deemed "Times Square." Prisoners spent 23 hours per day in their cells, unless they secured prison jobs, in which case they spent 18 hours per day in their cells. Cells contained a toilet, a sink, a military cot and retractable chair and table bolted to the wall. A fourth block of the prison, that closest to Golden Gate Bridge, was dedicated to solitary confinement and had cells with and without external light. Here is a page about prison life on "The Rock."
Alcatraz was operated until the Kennedy administration, when Attorney General Robert Kennedy ordered it closed because it was costing the government more money to keep a prisoner over night at Alcatraz than a stay at the Waldorf in New York. It was closed on March 21, 1963 and the menu in the mess hall still displays that date, and the chow listed for that morning.
Alcatraz guards only carried guns when they manned the fortified gun cage that overlooked the cells. In one prison attempt that was quelled by the Marines, prisoners climbed up the three-story gun cage and gained entry using a mechanical bar spreader. All the would-be escapees were killed. The mess hall was fitted with tear gas canisters. But the prison was ultimately made escape proof by the cold water of San Francisco bay. Alcatraz never logged any officially successful escapes. In the few attempts that happened escapees were shot dead or believed drowned. As portrayed in the 1979 Clint Eastwood movie, "Escape from Alcatraz," three escapees, Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin, disappeared from their cells on June 11, 1962, less than a year before the prison was closed. The escapees were officially listed as "missing and presumed drowned." Plywood paddles and parts of a raft made from raincoats were found on Angel Island by the FBI. In the intervening years no one has surfaced claiming to be or even to have seen the escapees.
In 2003, Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage, the co-hosts of the television series MythBusters, put the escape attempt to the test. Using materials at the disposal of the three convicts, the MythBusters constructed an inflatable raft from a large quantity of rubber raincoats and fabricated plywood paddles. They chose a date when the tide direction was similar to that of the escape attempt. With another crew member standing in for the third prisoner, they were able to paddle with the outgoing tide to the Marin Headlands, near the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. Despite the successful passage, the MythBusters concluded that the prisoners probably did not survive.
In a curious epitaph, In 1969 a group with the American Indian Movement attempted to reclaim Alcatraz Island, saying that an 1868 federal treaty allowed Native Americans to use all federal territory that the government was not actively using. The government forced the Native Americans off after two years.
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Last update: 9/5/2006; 8:37:23 PM.