Would you pay to go to prison? Believe it or not, many people do when they visit San Francisco, California. Their destination is Alcatraz, America’s most infamous prison. With its isolated setting and violent history, Alcatraz has become San Francisco’s number one tourist attraction—over one million people visit it every year. You may even recognize the place from some of the movies filmed here, such as The Rock (Nicolas Cage) and Escape from Alcatraz (Clint Eastwood).
Touring this prison is like visiting hell in the midst of heaven. Strangely, it was purposely set up that way, a symbol of the government’s attempt to restore law and order in the midst of the Great Depression in the 1930’s, an era of gangsters and unprecedented crime. Operating in secrecy from the general public, the newspapers, and the courts, Alcatraz’s mission was to break its prisoners, not rehabilitate them. It held many of America’s most famous and violent criminals such as Al Capone; Alvin Karpis of the Ma Barker gang; George “Machine Gun” Kelly; Robert Stroud, known as the Birdman of Alcatraz; and Floyd Hamilton, from the Bonnie and Clyde gang.
You can only visit Alcatraz by boat, as the prison is on a small 25-acre island in the midst of San Francisco Bay, about 1.5 miles from the shore. Overgrown by wild trees and plants and surrounded by 130-foot high cliffs, the prison’s drab concrete buildings have an air of mystery and intrigue.
Wear a jacket, as even in the midst of July, frigid winds blow straight off the Pacific Ocean. The salty air has corroded everything: even the concrete buildings have turned brittle, and the wind’s high moisture content makes everything damp. When the fog rolls into the Bay, it causes the temperature to drop and it completely enshrouds the island, cutting it off from the mainland, at times for days. No wonder the turnover of prison guards was quite high. Many of them hated to be on this island. Alcatraz destroyed their health and turned many of them into alcoholics.
Everyday life for the prisoners was rough. Every prisoner was given a rule book, which laid out every aspect of how his life would be regulated: no talking in the Mess Hall, no reading a newspaper, no listening to the radio, no talking on the phone, no unapproved visitors, and no sending and receiving uncensored mail. No privacy whatsoever. Even the temperature of the bathroom showers was regulated: it had to be extra hot (100°F) so that prisoners could not accustom their bodies to cold temperatures. In case a prisoner escaped and tried to swim ashore, his body would not be able to sustain the Bay’s frigid temperature (34° F).
Prisoners were awakened at 6:30 a.m., locked up in their 8 x 4 foot cells at 4:50 p.m., and then left in the dark at 9:30 p.m. Segregation was common: the location of a prisoner’s cell was determined by his sexual orientation and race: gays were placed in the top tier (the block of cells with the best views of the harbor), blacks and other minorities in the middle, and white heterosexual men in the bottom.
Experience the hellish living conditions of the prisoners first-hand by taking the Cell Block tour. As you walk through the cell blocks (nicknamed Michigan Boulevard, Broadway, and Times Square), the dining room, and the exercise yard, you will feel how depressing it must have been to live here: confined to a small cell with nothing to do, surrounded by violent psychopathic prisoners, living with no hope for the future. The cold winds and fog would have made this place even more unbearable, like living in a refrigerator with a fan constantly blowing on you. No wonder Al Capone begged the government to release him. Until its closure in 1963 there was only one successful prison break—an incredible feat when you look at the layout of the prison and island.
Make sure to visit the Alcatraz Museum, the bookshop, and the restored historic gardens. Then, take time to explore the island and witness how nature has begun to reclaim the island. What was once a barren landscape is now covered with long grasses, wild roses and flowers, large cactus-like agave plants, and tall eucalyptus trees. Seabirds such as herons, cormorants, Western gulls, and brown pelicans have made this island their home. If possible, walk along the Agave Trail, usually open from mid-September to January. It’s about one mile in length. One part of the trail will take you right beside the ocean where you can observe sea lions and another part will take you through a bird sanctuary that has thousands of seabirds.
From different parts of the island you will have incredible views of San Francisco and the entire San Francisco Bay area, including the Golden Gate Bridge.
Alcatraz prison is open every day. Take the boat to Alcatraz Island from Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 33. It you want, you can spend the entire day on the island. You will need at least two hours to see everything. Take a self-guided tour complete with headphones and tapes, available year-round in several languages: it’s an experience you will never forget.
About the author:
Eric Alexander Hamilton lives in Vancouver, Canada. He loves travelling and has lived in several cities such as Paris, London, and Zurich. His passions in life are photography and writing, particularly about travel, self-help and spiritual topics. To him, writing and photography are a natural match, as witnessed in his web site, www.lifedestiny.com. With each passing day, he is trying to follow the advice of the famous American writer, Jack London:, who said: “The proper function of man is to live, not to exist.” It’s advice we should all follow.