Alcatraz Prison

On a recent jaunt to San Francisco I had the opportunity to also see Alcatraz Prison. Actually it was really only a prison for twenty-nine years. And now after oodles of interesting history and occupation as a prison and then later as an American Indian Colony it is now a National Historic Monument.

Situated a mere one and one half miles from the city of San Francisco Alcatraz Prison enjoys what I am sure was once thought of as the perfect location for a prison. But the sheer fact that it only survived as a prison for twenty-nine years indicates that there were issues.

Alcatraz Prison: The Approach
Alcatraz Prison: The Approach

On the day that we took the tour boat over to the Island the weather couldn’t have been more perfect. It was sunny and warm with a nice breeze. And as you will see as you scroll down through the pictures the locals were out in force with their sailboats enjoying the brilliant day.

I can only imagine that the approach to Alcatraz Prison by a prospective inhabitant was less than attractive no matter how pleasant the day might have been. In fact as you get close enough to the island to see some of the signage you get a pretty good idea about how isolated you are and just how hard it might be to escape from this place.

In August of 1934 Alcatraz Prison was established as a Federal Prison and was know to

Welcome to Alcatraz Prison
Welcome to Alcatraz Prison

have housed such notorious prisoners as Al Capone,  “Machine Gun” Kelley, The Bird Man of Alcatraz (aka Robert Stroud) and a whole host of other criminals that I have never heard of.

When first arriving the park rangers gather all the tourists much like prisoners were assembled but thankfully without the handcuffs, leg restrains and stripped uniforms.

Guard Tower's View
Guard Tower's View

Initially we were given an introductory talk on what we could expect on the island. One of the issues of having a prison out there was that there was no natural source of fresh water. So, during it’s operation as a prison all the fresh water for inmates, guards and their families was provided by barge. Oddly enough at some point there was a laundry service set up on the island where inmates could work. This facility also depended on water that was brought to the island by barge.

The island consists of twenty-two acres of predominantly rocky terrain, and is inhabited

A Beautiful Day for Sailing
A Beautiful Day for Sailing

by a colony of thousands of birds, mostly seagulls and egrets. There are areas of the island that are fenced off and tourists are discouraged from getting too close to where the birds are nesting. In fact I believe in that initial talk that everyone gets upon landing on the island that they told us it was best to steer clear of the baby seagulls because the momma’s had been known to attack. We saw lots of baby seagulls but fortunately no upset mommas.

Alcatraz Prison Gardens
Alcatraz Prison Gardens

When we first got off the ferry we were located at the dock. Located in that area is the old barracks building which predominantly served as a barracks where it housed the guards and their families who lived on the island. It was interesting to hear that there were, in fact, a whole host of children who lived on the island. They evidently never saw the prisoners who were remanded to the cellhouse which is located at the top of

Alcatraz Prison - Model
Alcatraz Prison - Model

the island. The cellhouse has it’s own recreation yard and except for a very few select prisoners who garnered special privilege to be able to work in the gardens and/or as houseboy at the warden’s house (also at the top of the island) the children were never exposed to the prisoners.

Evidently the children had a boat that would take them to San Francisco for school during the week. And as strange as it may seem Alcatraz children were permitted to have overnight guests. Of course the children who were guests had to meet fairly stringent background check process.

Once we made it up the winding paths, past the power plant, the old laundry facility which is in ruin now and occupied by a myriad of birds,  we come to the cell house itself. I read recently that the cellhouse was at one time built by prisoners who would then be incarcerated there. In 1912 when it was finished it was considered to be a modern prison in part because of it’s steam heat, electric lights and skylights.

Cellhouse at Alcatraz Prison
Cellhouse at Alcatraz Prison

The National Park Service provides a great tour experience in the form of a self regulated audio tour. It’s a really good thing that it’s self regulated. I suspect that I am neither the first, nor the last to get lost during the audio presentation. But with simple to understand instructions I was able to rewind the portion where I got lost and play it again.

During the course of the presentation we were actually taken not only through the major parts of the cellhouse but also through a re-enactment of the escape that occurred in 1962. During this escape prisoners were able to use a service corridor just three feet wide to then access a fan vent which led to the outside. Prisoners who escaped that night left cleverly crafted dummies in their bunks to fool the guards. I believe that all but two of the escaped prisoners were accounted for. Of course the official report indicates that the two missing were drowned in their attempt to swim across the bay. But their bodies were never found.

Alcatraz Lighthouse
Alcatraz Lighthouse

The cellhouse and the barracks are the two best preserved buildings on the island. In 1970 there was a fire that essentially destroyed the warden’s home as well as the lighthouse keepers home. The lighthouse at Alcatraz Prison is the oldest operating lighthouse on the west coast.




San Francisco July 17, 2011
San Francisco July 17, 2011
San Francisco Sailing
San Francisco Sailing

Related Posts

16 thoughts on “Alcatraz Prison

  1. marquita herald

    Very interesting Jim … I’ve been to San Fran so many times and have always had in the back of my mind to make that treck over to Alcatraz but never seemed to find the time. Looks like it was a fascinating trip – thanks for sharing!

  2. Shari Weiss

    As a San Francisco Bay area resident, I have had many sight seeing opportunities, especially when out of towners come to visit. By far my favorite attraction, though, is Alcatraz. The interesting thing about that is that under typical circumstances, I would never have thought that would be the case.

    But the tour and grounds are fascinating — especially when you use the audio tour which is narrated in large part by the actual convicts. A really marvelous visit!

    1. admin

      I totally agree about the narrated audio. In fact I was telling someone about it today and how cool it was to have like a personalized tour and then they also walk you through one of the escape episodes. It was a really interesting excursion and we had the perfect weather when we were out there. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Rick Salas

    Hi Jim, Alcatraz is a very interesting place to visit and I’ve always wanted to go see what it’s all about. I haven’t been there yet but your post was a pleasure to read. Nice pictures too. I’m looking forward to your next post.

    Rick Salas

    1. admin

      Thanks Rick ~ I’m formulating my next post already. And of course I have some nice pictures to go along with it. Stay tuned.

  4. CJ Priestley

    Love the pictures Jim, I visited San Fran many many years ago would like to go back. When I was there I didn’t actually visit the rock not sure they allowed it back then but actually ate at a restaurant that had a nice view of the rock with a makeshift cell in the restaurant for those touristy pictures.

    I would like to take a tour of the island now to just soak in the history and all. I am reminded of the movie Escape from Alcatraz with Clint Eastwood that has been playing on tv lately. It had to be super expensive to run the prison back then had no idea all that water was shipped in not to mention other things we take for granted, actually surprised the state was funding it but still none the less had to have been a cool tour.

    Any chance of taking a “detour” on the tour ? check out some of the cells in depth or who knows what else. If you remember was the movie with Eastwood by any chance mentioned?

  5. Charles Seay

    Hello Jim,
    I see that you are working on the next piece and will be supplying more pictures. I look forward to reading the next installment and the viewing the pictures you took. You actually brought me there with your descriptions and your journey. I always thought that prison was housing prisoners for much longer than 29 years. Thanks for the history lesson and ….

    To your success,


    1. admin

      My pleasure Charles. Writing about these places is as much of an education for me as it is for my readers. I’m looking forward to my next adventure. I’ll be leaving for Greece in just a few short weeks.

  6. Donnie Miller

    Great post Jim – I have always been interested in Alcatraz and it’s history. One of these days I would love to visit it – thanks to you and your post I already have a head start!

    Great pics too BTW – thanks for sharing!


  7. Raena Lynn

    Hi Jim,

    Wow, I can’t get over the beauty of your photography. My daughter, who is now 23 went on a field trip to Alcatraz last year. She brought back pictures and I created a scrapbook layout of her trip. Her pictures were fine, but they didn’t come close to capturing the day as you did! When my children go away on a trip and I need to get information for journaling, it seems to be difficult because by the time they return and I ask them about the trip, they usually reply with general statements. She went on the same tour you did, however you captured the experience with stories, and descriptions which made the trip more interesting, meaningful, and graphically appealing.

    You really have a gift in writing about your journeys to all of your travel destinations! Being able to portray a 29 year old prison in this light proves that you could anything, anywhere. Thanks. I actually learned quite a bit about Alcatraz beyond the movie!

    I’m looking forward to Greece!

    Raena Lynn

  8. Roshanda Gilmore

    I enjoyed reading your journey in San Fran!

    I have never been there and find it ironic considering I’ve been living in California my whole life, lol!

    The pictures are awesome! Thanks for sharing…the information re: the prison was pretty interesting to learn about.

    1. admin

      Isn’t it funny that when we live in a place that we rarely go to see the sights that other people travel thousands of miles to see? I’ve been guilty of the same thing, but I’m trying to break out of that more and more.

  9. Marc Korn

    Hi Jim,

    Thanks for another great tour. It’s awesome to view all these places that I have never visited… but one day I hope to.

    Your pictures and great commentary give me the feel that I am on the tour with you…very vivid.

    I will be thinking of this post the next time I watch “Birdman of Alcatraz”

    Looking forward to “our” next trip,

    1. admin

      Thanks Marc. It’s my intent to do one more post in the next several days. We’ll see how that goes as I have just six days before I am off to Greece for more adventures. It’s my intent to keep my blog up to date for the month that I will be away.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *