“Life on the Rocks”- Alcatraz Prison is on an Island Just 1-1/2 Miles from San Francisco

“You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention. Anything else you get is a privilege,” this was one of Alcatraz prison’s many rules and regulations. Just a mile and a half from San Francisco, the convicts could look out the barred windows and see the beautiful Golden Gate Bridge, boats sailing by, birds flying, and the men knew what they were missing. Alcatraz was a United States maximum-security, minimum-privilege penitentiary between 1934 and 1963. During our tour of the “rock,” we discovered the “real” stories of Al Scarface Capone, Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz, Doc Baker, Alvin Creepy Karpis, George Machine Gun Kelly, Floyd Hamilton, and many other convicts who made this their home. America saw a violent crime wave in the 1920’s and 30’s and the Federal government wanted a new super prison to isolate troublemakers. The toughest, most dangerous, and most famous prisoners were sent to Alcatraz. This prison was a symbol and warning to criminals, built to keep every inmate directly under their guns. All of the convicts were only a number, not a name, not a person.

We were thrilled to take the self-guided Cellhouse Recorded Tour, to actually walk down the corridors where it all happened. Some of the typical cells were open for us to enter the world of the convicts. Each cell had a folding table, chair, cot, and toilet. Our audio recorders told the story with the voices of former Alcatraz inmates and correctional officers as they remember life on the island. We could hear the convicts yelling, the guards shooting their guns, and the special sound effects to recreate scenes from the past. This was a great “reality” tour. When the tour reached the dining room, we could imagine 200 convicts eating with knives, forks, and spoons. This could lead to a dangerous situation. Tear gas canisters were placed on the ceiling but never used. Solitary confinement cells, or “the hole,” were dark and damp. Of the 14 attempted federal prison-era escapes, the best known occurred in June, 1962, when Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin slipped into the water. They used raincoats as floatation devices and were presumable bound for San Francisco. Although their bodies were never found, they were presumed to have drowned. It was said that they widened the ventilators in the back walls of their cells with stolen spoons. We walked to one of their cells to see the dummy heads which fooled the guards. Painting the faces, getting the hair, and preparing these life- size heads was probably very difficult. On March 21, 1963, Alcatraz was closed because of the deteriorating condition of the penitentiary. Today Alcatraz is operated by the National Park Service. Alcatraz Island is one of the most popular destinations in the Golden Gate National Parks, offering a close-up look at this former federal prison. Visitors to Alcatraz can not only explore the remnants of the prison, but also learn about the Native American occupation of 1969 – 1971, early military fortifications and the West Coast’s first and oldest operating lighthouse. The island also features gardens, tide pools, bird colonies, and spectacular bay views, and, now, the history of ALCATRAZ: ESCAPE FROM REALITY exhibit! There is a steep walk up to the main cellhouse but a free tram is available. Several trails are open for visitors to explore on their own. You can attend a free 12 minute video presentation of the island’s 200 year history. Ranger programs are scheduled during the summer.

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San Francisco has such beautiful scenery and so many exciting attractions, but you MUST take time to see Alcatraz! The Blue and Gold Fleet has the exclusive contract to Alcatraz Island. You can choose the Alcatraz Day Tour, Evening Tour, or Combination Tour. Call the Blue and Gold Fleet about ferries to Alcatraz, (415)-705-5555. The ferries leave every 45 minutes. National Parks: (415) 561-3000,
Pier 39: (415)-705-5500. www.blueandgoldfleet.com
www.nps.gov/alcatraz www.parksconservancy.org.