Alcatraz Island sits out in the cold waters of San Francisco bay, a cold and desolate looking place but its always held a certain degree of fascination for me. I’ve visited San Francisco many times but I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never been to Alcatraz. Its always been something that I was going to do, but never got round to it. Anyway I finally did it and it was certainly worth the wait.
I arrived early at Pier 33, also known as Alcatraz Landing, for my 8:45am departure to the island. It was already busy with a lot of people milling around, I joined an already long line of people and it wasn’t long before we boarded the boat and departed.
I found myself a seat on the top open deck but it was a particularly foggy morning so unfortunately for me the views weren’t that great. As we approached the fog lifted a little and the island came in to view, it looked kind of eerie in the mist. The boat ride takes around 10 to 15 minutes and I’m sure had it not been foggy I’d have got some great views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the coastline.
After we disembarked we were asked to wait so we could be given a brief talk about what to expect and where to go. I headed straight up to the Cell Block Audio Tour as this was the bit I was really interested in.
I picked up my headphones and headed in to the area where new prisoners were taken, there’s a large open shower area in the middle of the room and at the far end an area where prisoners were given their prison clothing, bedding and eating and drinking utensils.
The audio tour is excellent and is narrated by former inmates, correctional officers, and residents of the island. They really bring the stories alive of what life was like on Alcatraz but from very different points of view. The tour directs you around the Cell Block pointing out different areas of interest, some of the cells have been reconstructed to show visitors what prison life would have been like, personally I think life here would have been miserable (as I’m sure it should have been), the cells were really small and very basic.
Block D also known as Isolation was where the unruly prisoners were housed. They were kept in incredibly small cells with no natural daylight. One of the stories you hear is about one inmate who, to stop the boredom, tore a button off his prison uniform threw it on the floor and then would try and find it, all in pitch black darkness.
The audio tour also tells you about the escape attempts and in particular the 1962 “dummy head” escape which was immortalised in the Clint Eastwood film Escape from Alcatraz. Three of those who participated in that breakout have never been accounted for.
As I followed the audio tour I also saw the recreation ground, the area where prison visits (very few) were held, the prisoners dining hall, apparently one of the most dangerous areas of the prison because of the cutlery and kitchen utensils, the kitchen area, the control room and the offices of the governor and other prison staff.
The Cell House tour last around 45 minutes and I found it a fascinating insight into the goings on of one of the worlds most infamous prisons.
The cell block isn’t the only interesting part of the island as it started life as a military fort and a military prison before becoming the high security prison that everyone associates the island with.
The Barracks building built in the 1860’s served as quarters for soldiers assigned to prison guard duty. An officer’s club was also housed there for a brief time. In preparation for civilian inmates the building was refurbished into apartments for correctional officers and their families. The complex included a small shop and post office.
Walking up the hill from the dock is the Guardhouse and Sally Port. Built in 1857, the guardhouse is the oldest building on the island. This was the first line of defense against enemy landing parties, however the defenses were never tested in battle. It was later used to hold army prisoners.
A little further up and you’ll find the derelict Post Exchange / Officers’ Club. Built in 1910 this was the local general store where soldiers could buy food and personal goods. When Alcatraz became a federal prison the building was converted into a recreation hall and officers’ club, complete with a dance floor, gymnasium, two lane bowling alley and soda fountain.
Right up by the cell house is the Warden’s House, this house commanded the island. The building had seventeen large rooms with windows offering sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco. In 1970 the building was destroyed by fire leaving the shell seen today.
Around the island are traces of ornamental gardens, these can be seen quite clearly at the Warden’s House and on the western slope below the cell house. These were planted in the 1950’s by order of the Captain of the Guards, who felt Alcatraz’s children had too much free time and would benefit from the experience of keeping small plots of land along the edge of the employee housing area.
Whilst I was there there was also an art exhibition around the island but particularly in the New Industries Building – which is not normally open to the public – by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. The artworks have been specially created for Alcatraz.
“Ai responds to the island’s layered legacy as a notorious prison turned national park, raising questions about freedom of expression and human rights that resonate far beyond this particular place”
The exhibition is well worth a visit and the old derelict buildings filled with modern artwork create an interesting and thought provoking environment.
I’m glad I made the effort to visit Alcatraz on this trip to San Francisco, it’s an unusual attraction but one that I’d highly recommend doing. Make sure you book in advance as tickets sell out quickly and quite often weeks ahead.
To see more pictures from Alcatraz please visit my Pinterest account at pinterest.com/mrbelltravels