on October 17, 2010
Of course no visit to San Francisco is complete without taking the boat trip to the notorious prison of Alcatraz and we’d been determined to get there so we had booked and paid for our tickets in advance. On our first full day in San Francisco we headed off to the pier to pick up the Alcatraz cruise. We were in plenty of time so were able to check out the pier-side museum and read the chilling words "any convict who escapes, or who attempts to escape, when recaptured is obliged to wear a ball and chain for three months". Alcatraz was full of rules and we’d more of them as we went round the prison, but of course it was dealing with some of the most notorious criminals in the USA.The clean, modern boat, the Islander, was in position waiting for us and it wasn’t long before we were heading off across the bay, with the infamous island way ahead in the distance. We got some perfect views back across to the town of San Francisco with its incredible variety of modern architecture overlooking the bay.The prison building looked stark and forbidding even now and the original signage announced that this was a "United States Penitentiary" that no government boats were allowed nearer than 200 yards, and no one would be allowed on the island without a pass. The whole island is 12 acres in size so we’re not talking about a small place and the old guard towers confirm how seriously they took security on this bleak and forbidding island.After a brief explanation by one of the park rangers we were invited to explore the prison and its grounds unaccompanied and walked up the gentle sloped past the weathered building with their algae ridden corrugated roofs. We pass one of the huge guard towers and, despite the fact that it’s unmanned it’s still a chilling feeling and then into the prison. We’ve all been kitted out with headphones for the self guided tour and we are soon passing through the reception area where prisoners would have been issued with their essentials – shaving brushes, shoes and prison clothing. Then we’re in the cell block and these are just unpleasant and primitive cells. I’m not suggesting that they should have been anything other, because in their day these prisoners needed to be contained. There were dangerous and brutal men here and it was a tough life for prisoners and wardens alike. And that still shines through the very fabric of this building. We saw the Birdman’s cell and at one point we could just about see the banks of the town from one of the high barred windows. Tantalisingly close, but the river’s fierce currents were almost a guarantee that escape was impossible.A quote from Frank Weatherman, the last prisoner to leave the island, confirms our belief that Alcatraz was an unrelenting place for one and all – "Alcatraz was never no good for nobody" ( a triple negative). Take a walk in the exercise yard – you’ll get a view of the mainland as you go down the steps but then the concrete wall with its barbed wire topping is all that you see. Just imagine exercising in the yard for day after day after day. Boredom must have been real hard to combat.Regulation 11 (and all the prisoners were given a book of the prison regulations on arrival – so there was no excuse not to know and understand what was expected of you) clearly told inmates that no transfer to another prison would be recommended "unless you can show a better than average good conduct record for several years at this institution". That meant don’t even think about not obeying the rules!The "hole" was where the most dangerous of inmates were detained. They were given "adequate food" but confined in their cell. Six closed front cells were the deterrent for sever disciplinary problems where offender could be locked up in total darkness on a restricted diet for up to 19 days. Despite the awfulness of this, prisoners still pushed their luck! It’s always maintained that no prisoner ever escaped from the island but we did marvel at the inventiveness of the attempts, particularly that of Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers who made it off the island, but are believed to have drowned in their escape. The truth of the matter is that one way or another they did escape. They never returned!!The "Rock" has been a lighthouse, a military garrison, a military prison, a "home" for conscientious objectors, a federal prison, and the occupation by a group of native Indians from 1969 – 1971 (and some of their graffiti remains there to this day). It was only a prison for 29 years, but that’s the one it’s most remembered for. Remembered, because of prisoners like the Birdman, Al Capone, ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, and Doc Barker. Prisoners who have, perhaps shamefully, notoriety through their life in films! Alcatraz is a brilliant visit but while you there remember to keep an eye out for the flora and bird life, because now the inhabitants of the island are nowhere near as violent as those original prisoners.
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