Unless you have family members incarcerated, or you are a criminal yourself, it is possible to spend a lifetime and never step inside a prison. These days prisons are built far from most communities and even though two million prisoners are warehoused inside American jails, it is safe to say jails tend to keep to themselves. This has not always been the case, and before Alcatraz in San Francisco became a tourist destination, "The Rock" was a daily reminder to the population to keep their nose clean, lest they end up with the worst of the worst in the middle of San Francisco Bay.

The Federal Penitentiary at Alcatraz, open from 1934 to 1963, had a reputation as the end of the road for the country's baddest. It was inescapable and ultra-strict. So strict, in fact, that prisoners were to remain silent at all times in what turned out to be the ultimate torture. This small prison, built to hold 336 prisoners at maximum capacity, was never full and at various times only one inmate would occupy an entire cellblock. Alcatraz did have a few amenities though, it was the first federal prison to have hot water showers. Inmates could listen to baseball games and Sunday sermons by inserting an earplug into an outlet on the cell wall. On the other hand, it must have been a cruel reminder that San Francisco—freedom—was just a one mile swim away.

Now that the prison is empty, it seems to be in a state of suspended animation. The US government locked the doors and abandoned the island for six years until American Indian activists took over the island in 1969—but even they left in 1971, leaving the buildings to disintegrate. Paint on the cement walls and floors is weathered and peeling, dust has accumulated on metal bars in the upper cellblocks where no one goes anymore. The warden's residence and other outbuildings are crumbling brick shells with no roofs. The inmates and their keepers left Alcatraz and never looked back. The birds came and took back the island. A perfect refuge.

To visit Alcatraz is to imagine prison life before prisons went high-tech. Before OZ, where prison lights are on all day and all night. Before wardens from hell made male prisoners wear pink to remind them who's boss. This is not to say that Alcatraz wasn't tough, one highlight of the tour is the chance to go inside The Hole—a sensory deprivation cell—and you'll thank your lucky law abiding stars you never had to spend time there.

There is no best time to visit Alcatraz—San Francisco has moderate weather year-round and you are almost guaranteed fog in San Francisco Bay and other atmospheric effects when you climb on the ferry to the island.

Reserve your tickets at least a week in advance by calling 415-705-5555, especially during the spring and summer. Without calling in advance, you can go to the Alcatraz ticket center at Pier 41 and purchase tickets and audio guides. Prices are $13.25 for adults, $11.50 for seniors (62+), and $8 for children (5-11). The ticket price includes the roundtrip boat ride, audio guide, and entry to Alcatraz. Get your souvenirs at Piers 39 and 41 where the usual offerings of shot glasses and magnets bearing pictures of Alcatraz are mixed with unique items like the green scrubs I bought with the words "Alcatraz Psychiatric Ward" plastered on the back pocket.

Popular evening tours of Alcatraz are scary and goose bumpy fun. Evening visits include guided tours to the cellhouse, an audio tour, and a spectacular view of the San Francisco skyline. Check with the National Park Service for special events, including the popular candle-lit Halloween at Alcatraz. You are going to pay more for the night tours; $19.75 for adults, $17.00 for seniors, and $10.50 for children.

While you are waiting to board the boat, you will be asked to pose for pictures that you can buy when you return from Alcatraz. I found this hard sell to the poor tourists held in bull pens rather annoying and feared that the rest of the visit would be marred by more overt commercialization.

Thankfully, my cynical fears were unfounded as we got onboard the boat for a short ride to Alcatraz. One of the first signs you see upon approach is a warning for all unauthorized boats to stay off the island, or else risk getting shot. As we docked, I saw one of the buildings painted with the message, "Indians Welcome." It is disappointing that the Indian takeover of Alcatraz in 1969 is never mentioned again during the tour.

Once you start the tour with your audio guide, voices of ex-prison guards and prisoners recreate the sounds and stories of Alcatraz. Leading us on an evocative and moody tour of the cell blocks, the narrators recreate what it was like to live and work at Alcatraz along with stories of the more notorious characters, from Al Capone to Robert "The Birdman of Alcatraz" Stroud.

One memorable room is the mess hall and adjoining kitchen, looking particularly dilapidated with its ancient two-toned paint job. Our narrators describe a usually quiet cafeteria where every knife and fork was counted after meals. Unfortunately, cutlery counting didn't stop the violence amongst kitchen workers; more prisoners killed each other in the kitchen than any other part of the prison. We are also informed that if a riot were to break out in the mess hall, the warden could flip a switch and fill the whole room with enough poisonous gas to kill everyone inside. Who wants more meatloaf!

Other stops along the tour are the library, barber shop, and prisoner visiting room. Another sight is the actual cell where, in 1962, Frank Lee Morris and the Anglin brothers left papier-mâché dummies of themselves in their beds to fool jailers long enough to escape. It remains a mystery whether the trio survived the escape, but rent the Clint Eastwood film version, Escape From Alcatraz, and decide for yourself.

Take your time meandering through the different cell blocks and the gardens surrounding the jail. Depending on the season of your visit, parts of the island are closed as gulls take over. The beauty of the Alcatraz tour is that you have all the time in the world to explore and discover the place, and no one will rush you through.

But you do have to catch the last boat off the island each day, they won't take responsibility for you when all the lights go out at Alcatraz.

View the Alcatraz Photo Gallery

Links:
For more information on the 1969 Indian occupation of Alcatraz, and its impact on Pro-American Indian activism in the US, go to:
http://www.nativepeoples.com/np_features/np_articles/1999_fall_article/alcatraz-p2.html
http://www.pbs.org/itvs/alcatrazisnotanisland/

Special exhibitions and events at Alcatraz are listed on the official National Parks Service Web site:
http://alcatraz.got.net/welcome.htm

 

Features: Interview: Ann Rule | Interview: Texas Justice | Law and Order | Kid Fears | What You Should Know The Next Time You're Arrested |Vacation: Alcatraz | Murdered Denizens of Green-wood Cemetery | Quiz: Are You A Criminal? | Photo Gallery: Crime Scenes Before and After | BONUS: Stupid Laws | Crime: That's Entertainment!

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