I’ve always wanted to go to Alcatraz. I’m the kind of person that likes the reality show America’s Hardest Prisons, mainly because I get to see a side of life that I’ve never (thankfully) been exposed to.
Alcatraz was chosen as a prison because of its location – the island in the San Francisco Bay, although just 2.4km (1.5 miles) from shore, was surrounded by choppy waters that were near impossible to swim in.
This meant complete isolation from the outside world and made it near impossible to escape.
In fact, the only time inmates really heard outsiders was on New Year’s Eve when the party at the yacht club in the bay could be heard if the wind was blowing in the right direction.
I couldn’t help but think that the happiest night of the year for the people at the yacht club was often the saddest for those locked up. It meant yet another year they’d spent behind bars.
Alcatraz was a prison for less than thirty years and yet it housed some of the most notorious criminals of its time.
The prison system sent the worst behaving prisoners to Alcatraz to set an example to other inmates.
When Alcatraz opened in 1934 it was the era of the gangsters and the most famous gangster of all – Al Capone – was sent here. Full of self-importance, he learned quickly that his gangster hierarchy wouldn’t work in Alcatraz after he cut in line and a prisoner attacked him, leaving him in hospital.
Robert Stroud, known as ‘Birdman’ because of his contribution to avian research, was also imprisoned on Alcatraz after he was found brewing alcohol in his cell at another prison. He had a passion for birds after he found a nest of sparrows in the prison yard and had nearly 300 canaries by the time he was taken to Alcatraz. His birds weren’t allowed to go with him.
When you visit Alcatraz you can peek into the cells of some of these famous prisoners and see Birdman’s beautiful artwork of his beloved birds. You can also visit the hospital cell where an unwell Birdman spent most of his days. There’s a large photograph of him in there and he has deep blue eyes that seem to haunt you when you look into them.
Deaths at Alcatraz
Despite what people might think, no executions were carried out on Alcatraz. This didn’t meant there weren’t any deaths though – eight people were murdered by inmates and five committed suicide.
The infamous ‘Battle of Alcatraz’ resulted in the deaths of two prison guards and three inmates in 1946. During a two day stand off, prisoners tried to overpower the guards and escape but were unsuccessful after the US Marines drilled holes in the prison roof and dropped grenades into the building to corner the inmates.
As you walk around Alcatraz you can see bullet holes in the walls and damage to the building caused from this escape attempt.
Escape from Alcatraz
Security was tightened after this escape attempt, and no other prisoners attempted to flee until 1956.
But the most well known, and perhaps only successful, escape from Alcatraz happened in June 1962 when three men dug their way out of the prison and escaped in an inflatable raft.
The men built dummy heads with soap, toilet paper and real hair, leaving them in bed to fool the guards over night.
They then spent more than a year digging out of Alcatraz with spoons before making their escape.
Their escape wasn’t discovered until the morning and their bodies were never found meaning they could’ve successfully escaped and might even be alive to this day.
When you tour Alcatraz they have a replica dummy head in one of the cells so you can see how the prisoners managed to fool the guards for so long. You can also peek into the passage behind the cells and see the shaft which the prisoners climbed up to make their escape.
Growing up on Alcatraz
If a prisoner made an escape on Alcatraz, the island would go into lockdown and all the guards would be called up to the main prison building.
This could be scary for everyone, especially the children.
Yep, that’s right – children lived on Alcatraz. The prison guards’ wives and children were housed on one part of the island and described life on ‘The Rock’ as like living in a ‘small country town’.
Each morning a boat would pick up the children and take them to school in San Francisco and in the afternoon the kids could be heard playing in the dusty courtyard at the front of the island. What a unique way to grow up!
One of these children has grown up to be a historian and she works in the gift shop – seek her out and have a chat!
Alcatraz: Not just a prison
Although Alcatraz is most famous for being a prison, it was also used for other things. During the 1850s it was used as a military fort to defend San Francisco Bay during the Civil War and military prisoners were held on the island during this time.
Then after the notorious Alcatraz prison closed its doors in 1963, Native American activists occupied the island for 19 months until they were removed from the land.
You can still see signs of the Native American takeover with graffiti that is scrawled over the water tower that reads ‘Indians welcome’.
Dave and I stayed on the island for about three hours because we found it so interesting. Although we don’t normally do audio tours, the one on Alcatraz is a must because it’s narrated by the prison guards and prisoners who speak about their time spent on the island. It’s fascinating!
I felt a sadness as I left Alcatraz. There were so many unhappy souls housed in one place – not to mention all the deaths – that it’s hard for this rocky island not to leave its mark on you.
Have you been to Alcatraz? What did you think?
What you need to know:
Cost: It costs $30 per adult to get the ferry across to Alcatraz island with Alcatraz Cruises, which is the only service that goes to the island. This includes entry into the prison, which is a National Park Service operated island.
You can also visit the island for a night tour – this costs $37 per adult.
When to go: We went at the beginning of October and had lovely weather – but we were lucky! Normally San Francisco is foggy and it can get cold, so make sure you bring a jacket to rug up warm on the ferry.
The winter months are the best times to go to avoid the crowds but for the best weather, April to May and September to October are the best times to visit.
If you want to go bird watching – Alcatraz is also a protected bird sanctuary – it’s best to go between February and August.
The ferries leave every 15 minutes or so, but you can check the schedule on the Alcatraz Cruises website.
How to get there: To get to where the ferry departs from you need to make your way to Alcatraz landing at Pier 33 in San Francisco.
You can do this by bus, street car or driving. I’d recommend taking public transport as parking in San Francisco is a bit of a hassle and can be very expensive.
Alcatraz Cruises provided us with two complimentary tickets, but as always our views and work are our own.
Dave: Alcatraz. One of the most notorious prisons in the world.
Carmen: To visit, we hopped on an Alcatraz Cruises ferry with a crowd of other tourists and headed out to the island.
Dave: The America’s Cup was winding up so we got to watch the tall sailboats fly past as we took in sweeping views of San Francisco from the deck of the boat.
Carmen: And before we knew it, we could see Alcatraz appearing up close. Even from afar it looked eerie.
Carmen’s PTC: So we’ve just arrived here in Alcatraz, which was a notorious prison as most of you know, for 29 years up until 1963. And first impressions are is that it’s quite small, which just makes it all the more creepy thinking you would’ve been stuck here for eight, fifteen years even.
Dave: We had a brief orientation, checked out where to go on the map and then waited for the hordes of tourists to walk off before venturing into the prison grounds on our own.
Carmen: Can you imagine walking under this dark arch for the first time, knowing you’d be stuck here for the years to come?
Dave: We saw where the prison guards, their wives and children lived. Can you believe this building used to be a bowling alley for the families? Growing up here would’ve been a unique experience!
Carmen: Upon entering the main prison building we were suddenly confronted with bars, bars, and more bars. The air was cold and damp and thinking about being locked up in a cell here was depressing.
Dave: Some of America’s most notorious prisoners, like gangster Al Capone and murderer Robert Stroud – otherwise known as Birdman – have done time here.
Carmen: It was a place for America’s baddest prisoners.
Dave: Prison guards used to say ‘Break the rules and you go to prison, break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz.’
Carmen: Once inside you were told to ‘keep your mouth shut and your back against the wall’ before being handed a list of prison rules.
Dave: One of these regulations stated ‘You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Anything else you get is a privilege.’
Carmen: And if you misbehaved you were thrown into isolation in Cell Block D. It was a place of nightmares where you wouldn’t see the light of day.
Dave’s PTC: So this is Cell Block D. This is where they would take the real notorious prisoners who were acting up. To straighten them up – if they could – they would put them into this solitary confinement cells called the holes. Let’s go… I was reading that the maximum amount of time you could spend in here was 19 days. Can you imagine spending even one day in a cell like this which is only just wider than my arm span? Completely in the dark? We’ve got light coming in here now… but this would drive me crazy, it really would.
Carmen: But if prisoners were well behaved they could enjoy this place – the library. It was said that the prisoners of Alcatraz were more widely read than the general public – I guess there wasn’t much else to do behind bars!
Dave: Another privilege was being able to walk around the exercise yard or even garden in the grounds. The view of the harbour is spectacular and prisoners could almost forget where they were.
Carmen: You were also allowed visitors if you were well behaved and guests had to sign in before being taken to this room to talk to the prisoners through a hole in the wall.
Dave: One of the creepiest parts of Alcatraz was the hospital. This is where Birdman – who was considered to be insane – spent most of his time and it’s something straight out of a horror film. Walking around this part of the prison gave us the chills.
Carmen: Alcatraz was eventually shutdown as a prison in 1963 and has been a National Landmark for nearly 30 years. And if you’re brave enough, it’s certainly worth a visit.