Alcatraz, San Francisco

On my first visit to San Francisco we didn't have time to go to Alcatraz so going this time was high on my must do list. If you want to do Alcatraz too I would recommend you book well in advance of your visit as, not surprisingly, it's incredibly popular and if you just turn up there is no guarantee you'll be able to get on a boat to go across that day. In order to visit you need to have a pre-booked timed ticket for one of the ferries but once you are there you can spend as long as you like on the island and take any ferry back (they run approximately half hourly) at any point. You can book tickets online but be careful too who you book with, I read some horror stories online about tickets being 'sold' through unofficial agents and people finding they had lost money and didn't have a valid ticket. It's also worth noting that the island is a US National Park and a designated National Historic Landmark so there are strict rules about not taking anything off the island or disturbing any of the nesting birds. Plus if you want to take food with you there is only one designated spot where you can eat otherwise food and drink (with the exception of water) are prohibited. Once you arrive on the island you firstly receive a brief reminder from one of the island's staff of the dos and don'ts for your visit but after that you can head into the main building for an excellent self toured audio guide and to explore it all for yourself.

Approaching Alcatraz island

Everyone will know Alcatraz island as the home of the famous federal prison but it has also been home to an American Civil War fortress and military prison and after the federal prison closed was the site of an American Indian occupation. The first documentation of the island was in 1775 by Spaniard Juan Manuel de Ayala. He charted the San Francisco Bay and named one of the three islands there, La Isla de los Alcatraces translating as The Island of the Gannets but more commonly translated as The Island of the Pelicans from the archaic Spanish alcatraz meaning pelican. Before becoming the home of the prison the island was also home to the first operational lighthouse on the west coast of the United States, in use since 1854 and now operated by the US Coast Guard. 

With its isolation, the cold water and strong currents in the sea between the island and mainland it was considered a perfect spot to house prisoners long before the prison we all know opened and the first, soldiers guilty of crimes such as desertion, theft, assault, rape and murder, were housed there from 1859 onwards. As well as military prisoners it later held citizens accused of treason and after the 1906 earthquake was used to house civilian prisoners for safe confinement. Later during the First World War it was used for holding conscientious objectors. The island became a federal prison in 1934, used to house prisoners who continually caused trouble at other prisons, those who were considered to have no hope of rehabilitation. Most of its prisoners were notorious bank robbers and murderers including Al Capone (the exact location of his cell is actually unknown) and Robert Franklin Stroud, the 'Birdman of Alcatraz'. Though interestingly he never had birds whilst at Alcatraz, only canaries when he was at Leavenworth Penitentiary before being moved to Alcatraz, his real nickname was, 'Bird Doctor of Leavenworth'.

D-Block's Solitary Confinement Cells

Your ticket for the boat to the island includes the audio tour of the cellhouse which gives a fascinating insight in to life in the prison with the use of actual recorded accounts from both former inmates and staff. The tour takes you through the cells, the dining area, into the offices of the wardens and staff telling you how the prison functioned as well as some of the events from the prison's history, including those attempted and possibly at least once an actual escape, though no one knows for sure, that have helped to make Alcatraz famous. 

As we walked around it was interesting to learn that the different corridors inside were named after major US streets and landmarks including Broadway, Times Square and Michigan Avenue. Visiting now it's hard to imagine just how cold and miserable it must have been there at times. The day we went was actually pretty warm but there was still a keen wind that whistled through the prison, being so exposed I can't imagine there are many non-windy days there. One of the most interesting stories to hear was from an inmate who spoke about being able to hear the hustle and bustle of life in the city if the wind was blowing in the right direction, freedom seemingly being so close yet so far away. This inmate spoke about New Year's Eve in particular and how you could always hear the laughter and cheers from parties happening just across the bay on that night. Regardless of what he and others had done to end up there that must surely have been just as horrible as the day to day prison conditions. It was interesting to hear too from the families of prison officers who lived on the island and had a very different take on life there, with stories of the children commuting to school on the mainland via boat everyday and it being described as a pretty idyllic childhood with the families forming a small community on the island. Eventually though increased maintenance and operating costs saw the prison close in 1963.

Something I didn't know, and I guess I'd never given a lot of thought to, was what happened to Alcatraz after it closed as a prison and before opening to the public. I learnt on our visit that for a time afterwards it was occupied by American Indians. 

After the prison closed there were a number of proposals made as to what could be done with the island. In the end though it was a group of American Indian political activists who selected Alcatraz as the place to make a stand. They occupied the island on three separate occasions, firstly for a few hours in 1964, then in November 1969 a small group landed and claimed the island in the name of the 'Indians of All Tribes' with a full scale occupation beginning a few days later and lasting for nineteen months. The Indians of All Tribes offered to buy Alcatraz from the federal government saying that it reminded them of an Indian reservation because, among other things, it was isolated from modern facilities, the soil was rocky and unproductive and the land did not support game. Interest in the occupation grew due to Alcatraz's location and a growing awareness of American Indian issues, media coverage was generally positive and there was plenty of public support. However over time this lessened as they struggled to raise money and keep the occupiers supplied with food and water meaning that eventually the group's numbers dwindled down from the hundreds there at the height of the occupation. Eventually the last few were removed and in the aftermath a lot of the buildings on the island were bulldozed to nothing. This stopped when the island became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972 and the buildings were preserved for future generations. There is still evidence of this occupation, most notably the graffiti on the sign below that greets you as you arrive on the island and also on the island's prominent water tower.

We spent a fascinating few hours here, enjoying the audio tour as well as the chance to explore the rest of the island as we wished. I'd wanted to visit Alcatraz from the first time I went to San Francisco and it was just as interesting as I imagined. The tour was informative and the island, with its ruined buildings, the history evident from all its uses all around, its many beautiful flowers a legacy of the original gardens planted by families based there and the numerous wild birds that raise their young there, making it utterly fascinating. If you are visiting San Francisco and have an interest in history this really does have to be a part of your time there.


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