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.
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
have housed such notorious prisoners as Al Capone,Â “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.
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
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.
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
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,Â 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.
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.
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.