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Published: April 30th 2023
From 2010: Has it really been 13 years since I last visited Alcatraz? This must be my 5th or 6th visit to Alcatraz Island, former home to the Federal Prison. It housed some of the worst of the worst, like Al Capone, Robert (Birdman) Stroud, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Alvin "Creepy" Karpis, Mickey Cohen, Arthur "Doc" Barker, Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery and Nicky Cage. I went this time as a tourist! And it was a glorious day to be in the City.
Rather depressing, but free room and board
This is what I wrote a few years back:
Most of my local friends know about Alcatraz Island or as locals call it, "The Rock", and have probably been there at least once. For those of you out of the area, and the country, the small island sits in the middle of San Francisco Bay. It has been through many incarnations, including the first lighthouse on the west coast, a military fortress, a military prison, a federal prison, and a symbol of the American Indian movement.
It is easy to get there, just like in the days when it was a Federal prison. Make a reservation online at Alcatraz Tours, LLC, bring a windbreaker, and wear comfortable shoes. It is a very sobering experience, as you tour and learn more about this famous prison. I have been there 4 or 5 times, and I still find it fascinating. It has also served as a bird sanctuary and was also called Pelican Island by early Spanish settlers. The prisoners called it "Devil's Island". As your ferry approaches, it appears much larger than it looks from the air or from one of the bridges.
From 1850 to 1934, it was controlled by the military, both as a garrison, and as a prison. Old buildings still remain from this era. From 1934 to 1963, it was a Federal Penitentiary, geared to the most incorrigible criminals in the Federal system. The Indian occupation, at various times between 1964 and 1971, helped the Native American movement, and quite possibly saved the island. In fact, when I started at the University of California in Berkeley in the Fall of 1964, I could see lights and fires on Alcatraz from the 8th floor of my dormitory. Once the Free Speech Movement started on campus, we sort of lost sight of the movement on the Island by the Indians.
In October 1973, the National Park system opened Alcatraz Island to the public. In that first year, the estimated 50,000 visitors represented the highest number of people to set foot on the island in all of its recorded history. Even at its peak as a prison, Alcatraz averaged 250 to 300 inmates, though it had 335 cells. When the ferry lands, take your personal Alcatraz Audio Jailhoue Tour headset/audio player, which guides you and provides insights and history into Alcatraz, mostly as a federal prison. Many of the voices are from former prisoners and guards.
A reminder of the past!
As you walk around and listen to the Audio program, we learn of all the famous prisoners who lived here. They included: Al (Scarface) Capone, Robert (Birdman of Alcatraz) Stroud, and George (Machine Gun) Kelly, Alvin (the first public enemy #1) Karpis, Mickey Cohen, and Doc Barker. Most prisoners were not as well known, but deserved to be housed in the prison of prisons, as the Feds called it. It was Robert kennedy, at the time the Attorney General, who closed Alcatraz. High costs were the reason given despite its superior security. It was said it cost $10 per prisoner per day on Alcatraz, versus $3 in another Federal maximum security prison. Food, water, supplies and equipment, as well as prison guards had to be shipped in. All waste and garbage had to be transported out.
The weather was also harsh for the prisoners. The wind, moisture, and fog blow through the Bay almost all of the time. Escape was impossible due to the swift currents, assuming the prisoner could get out of the cell, and prison complex. Many movies were made here, including Escape from Alcatraz with Clint Eastwood, and The Rock, with Sean Connery and Nick Cage.
Your tour includes areas like the library, the mess hall, a typical cell, a solitary confinement cell, the exercise yard, and the showers. Recently, night and overnight tours are available. It seems so real with the headphones on, that you feel like some prisoners and guards are still there. It is a fascinating way to spend a day. The view of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco skyline, and the sailboats on the Bay are magnificent.
The SF Chron just had an article about a woman, Betty Lou Vickery, who grew up on the island when it was a military prison. The prisoners were considered low risk and mingled with the families living on the island! She is now 93 and considers Alcatraz her home. She went to school every day by boat. She even organized a party and a dance for her classmates on the island. She even remembers an inmate named Williams who played the piano for the dance. The prisoners were only locked up at night, and considered low risk. Most had jobs on the island and had the run of the place. The guards did not carry guns. Prisoners and families mingled, even watching movies together. But when the girls went through the cell blocks on an errand, they blew a whistle and all the inmates had to face the walls.
She lived in a 4 bedroom home on the lower left of this photo.
So, gather up the camera and walking shoes. This is always a great outing. I now realize how few scenes from "The Rock" were actually filmed here. Oh well! I am just so thankful that I can leave anytime I want. Fast forward to now: The Rock, with Sean Connery and Nic Cage is one of my favorite movies about The Rock. And if anyone wants to learn more about Alcatraz, I hear they now have overnight stays. I am not sure I want to sleep in a cell, walk several hundred yards to a porta-potty, and skip a much-needed shower in the morning. To each his or her own!!!
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