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Friday, July 31, 2009


No one thinks of famous prisons without thinking of dreaded Alcatraz. There on a rock in the middle of San Francisco Bay, sustained only by importing every daily necessity from the mainland, some of the worst and varied lawbreakers spent parts of their lives. Books were written and movies made about this infamous prison known as “The Rock.” If you spend any time in San Francisco, a trip to this fascinating landmark should be on your agenda.

Today Alcatraz is part of the National Park System, and as Rob and I always find, the National Park Service provides a first rate attraction with excellent guides and presentations. Before 1973 when the Park service opened the island for tours, no visitors were allowed. Visitation was not a prisoner privilege. Today more than 1.3 million visitors arrive each year. Few are disappointed.

Alcatraz was a prison almost from its inception when in 1859 eleven soldiers were confined there, but it was in the 1930s that it became a high-profile, maximum security Federal Penitentiary. Most of the prisoners were men who were problems in other prisons, but its fame came from some super notorious inmates: Al “Scarface” Capone, “Doc” Barker, George “Machine Gun Kelly” and Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz.

Rule #5 at Alcatraz reads as follows: You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention. Everything else you get is a privilege.”

No one ever escaped from Alcatraz. Fourteen attempts were made, and in 1962, three men got into the water using raincoats as life vests. Never heard of again, their bodies were never found. In fact, Alcatraz was so secure that the families of the prison guards living on the island did not even lock their doors. Alcatraz was closed as a prison in 1963.

I’m including so much history because as I looked back across the 1.5 miles to San Francisco I was startled by my feelings of isolation. Rob and I took the Night Tour. It was very dramatic. Being at Alcatraz at the close of day, we could see this magnificent city, and I imagined the prisoners locked in their cells or able to see the twinkling lights of a civilization that was beyond their reach for an average of eight to ten years. Animals do not inhabit this rock in the middle of San Francisco Bay. The only four legged animal living on the island is the deer mouse. Alcatraz does have one of the largest western gull populations on the California coast, however, and is home to many other birds that fly in and out with the winds exhibiting an unabashed freedom the men at Alcatraz sacrificed through their behavior. Even as a visitor, I was unable to shake the feeling of cold isolation from a warm world.

The Night Tour included a narrated boat tour around the island, a guided tour from the dock to the prison—a steep ¼ mile walk equivalent to a 13-story climb. Electric cart rides are offered to those who cannot climb. Prisoners always walked, chained, and the long, slow trek up to the top of the rock where the prison buildings sit was a slow march into a new reality.

In the prison we took a detailed audio tour including narration from former prisoners and guards who explained what it was like to live and follow the rules at Alcatraz, and when we walked back to the dock in the gathering darkness, we observed as birds flew home to roost.

Inside the prison we faced the stone cold facts of prison life. We visited the cell blocks, dining facilities, and other areas used by the prisoners.

We saw how some prisoners decorated their cells with the results of hobbies, etc. Eerily we learned about the lockdowns and how security within the prison worked.

The inevitable question seems to be “Where did Al Capone live?” The answer is that no one knows the exact cell. He spent part of his time in a hospital isolation cell. Bubbles burst as we learned that The Birdman of Alcatraz never had birds at Alcatraz; he had canaries while he was an inmate at Leavenworth.

We stepped inside cells; we walked the halls (streets) in the prison; we viewed the city from outside the prison building; we saw where the men worked; we looked at the “recreation yard”; we learned how the guards and their families lived on the island. We came away stunned.

The boat ride back to San Francisco’s lights with views of The Golden Gate Bridge in one direction and the bridge to Oakland in the other emphasized the loneliness of this place where no one escaped except, perhaps, the five suicides and the eight murder victims.

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