I have been to Alcatraz twice and on both occasions I’ve felt equally intimidated. After all, it’s an icon of American criminal culture and history. On my second day in San Francisco, exploring the island was the only plan. So, I hopped on to the boat (Alcatraz Cruise), which transports visitors to and from the island every day. After 15 minutes, as we drew closer to the island I saw the bleak remains of the Alcatraz prison sitting on a windy island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Known far and wide as the Rock, it was first established as a military fort in the 1850s by the US Army. During the Civil War, it became a military prison and for 29 years from 1934 to 1963 it operated as a federal prison, holding convicts that were too troublesome or dangerous to be held elsewhere. Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud and Alvin Creepy Carpis were some of its most ill-famed inmates.
Board at the entrance of the main prison. Image courtesy: Rama Sreekant
On the island you can take free guided tours or paid audio tours. I chose the latter, which leads you up the hill to the prison and ends at the cell-block entrance. On the tape, you can hear the Alcatraz prisoners and guards talking about their life on the Rock. Pause, rewind, take your time going through the prison. The narrator directs you to spots where interesting events took place: passageways where inmates crawled to escape, scenes of murders and shoot-outs. As you enter the main prison, a huge board reads: “Break the rules and you go to prison, break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz.” Hearing it on the audio, I knew I was in for a bonechilling experience.
Inside the cell house. Image courtesy: Alcatraz cruises
The three-story cellhouse included the four main blocks of the jail: A, B, C and D. Prison corridors were named after major American streets such as Broadway and Michigan Avenue. The cells in D Block were more spacious but still the least popular; inmates called it ‘the hole’ because there was only one small window in the door, which could also be closed to seal the cell completely. The audio tour takes you through the cells, dining hall, library, prison yard, warden’s office... The cells are still set up and furnished as they used to be–grim 9’ by 5’ rooms with a small cot, toilet and desk.
Grim, 9’ by 5’ cells with a small cot, toilet and desk. Image courtesy: Ken Yuel
Prisoners spent most days alone in their cell and talking was forbidden. Outside the windows they could see San Francisco city glittering. Sometimes (like on New Year’s Eve) they could even hear the parties, music and revelry from the city. Being unable to access it, despite being so close made the punishment harsher.
Image courtesy: Rama Sreekant
Since several prison riots historically started due to the quality (or its lack) of prison food, Warden Johnston wanted to make the Alcatraz cafeteria one of the best in the prison system. And he did. The menu was diverse with salads, fresh fruits, tasty entrees and desserts. On Alcatraz, going to the Recreation Yard was a privilege inmates had to earn.
The Alcatraz kitchen and offerings. Image courtesy: Rama Sreekant
For them it meant a bit more freedom, fresh air and socialising. Another such privilege was working at the prison or getting employed in the Model Industries Building and New Industries Building for sewing, woodwork, laundry and other chores for the military. Inmates played music at pre-approved times and those interested in gardening, created the most beautiful gardens on the west side of the island.
What kept prisoners in check was the long (1.5 mile) swim awaiting them on successful escape and the occasional shark that swam into the bay. Moreover, hypothermia was likely to set in quickly owing to the heavy currents. But on the morning of June 12, 1962, three prisoners remained in bed instead of standing up at their cells’ gates. Guards discovered that dummies lay on their beds; they had escaped. Even though the prison claimed that the men had drowned, their bodies were never found. Their escape is now famous because of the movie Escape from Alcatraz, starring Clint Eastwood.
Ex-inmate Darwin Coon signing his book, Alcatraz. Image courtesy: Rama Sreekant
At the tour’s end I reached the gift shop and found Darwin Coon (among the last of prisoners incarcerated here), signing his book, Alcatraz. After a 10-minute chat about his stay on the island, Coon signed my book. Then I walked up to the boat to return to the Bay area, leaving behind the prison’s dark history and the sense of isolation that seeps out of its damp walls. A trip to Alcatraz is no Disneyland ride, it’s real with a rough edge.
The lowest number of inmates Alcatraz saw was 222, the highest was 302 and average was around 260 during its 29 years. In this tenure it housed a total of 1,545 men. The average time of residence of inmates was about eight years.
Each month, inmates were granted one visit, which had to be approved by the warden. No physical contact was allowed and rules prevented inmates from discussing current events or matters concerning prison life.
The prison shutdown primarily because of rising costs (it was the most expensive prison of all states) and deteriorating facilities. Other institutions could serve the same purpose for less cost.