Cities National parks

Alcatraz : the escape-proof island in San Francisco bay

28 October 2015
Alcatraz road trip California

Who has never heard of Alcatraz ? You probably know the island thanks to the (in)famous criminals who were detained in its high-security prison, like Al Capone for example… But did you know that this small island in San Francisco bay has several stories ? Today, you can visit and discover some of the secrets of this legendary place. Shall we go on a tour ?

» Prepare your visit !

First, you should definitely organize your visit in advance. Do not plan it last minute, because you may not get tickets ! (Unless you go off-season, then you might get tickets at the counter, but it is strongly recommended to plan it in advance.) You can buy your pass here (from 90 days prior to your visit on) and you will have to pay $39 (around 35€) to get this precious door opener. You are wondering if the place is worth this relatively high price ? According to me, if you are only there for a short amount of time or on a very tight budget, it is not a mandatory stop – but it is still an interesting visit. The ferry ride, as well as the atmosphere and the stories about the island history are worth the detour : more details below, patience guys ! Anyway, if you decide to make a stop in Alcatraz, do not forget to print out your e-ticket beforehand, and then go to Pier 33 to take the ferry. If you have the possibility to park elsewhere and go to the pier with public transportation : do it ! Parking on the wharf is really expensive (I am telling you that from experience : $30 for the day for the cheapest spot if I remember well, but we did not have the choice because we were in a rush) and a bit of a struggle because there are not that many spots. Last piece of advice, I would strongly recommend that you do the visit in the beginning of the day : you will be able to find a parking spot with more ease if you choose that option, and you will find a less busy island (more than 1 million tourists per year on only 9 hectares…) ! Including the ferry ride, count 2 to 2,5 hours for the visit.

Alcatraz

» The arrival on the island

Try not to be to short on your timing, so you can be in front of the line to get on board. You can then choose your seat and find a strategic spot to take beautiful pictures. In fact, the ride is not that long but if the weather is good, you will have a nice view over San Francisco Bay and its 2 famous bridges : Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge ! (You may know only one of them right now, but we will talk about the city a bit more in a future article so you would be unbeatable on that topic. But here are stil some pictures to give you a small preview…) Once you are on the island, you will be welcomed by a ranger : yes, because Alcatraz is now a historical site managed by the US National Park Service. The ranger will give you practical information about the island, the principal dates of the events that occurred on it and will be available for any question. From there on, feel free to organize your visit as you wish ! At the entrance of the building, you can get an audioguide and get it programmed in the language you want. This service is included in the price, and will help you make a proper tour and select the explanations you want to hear. For your return ride, check the the ferry schedule, you can take any one according to the time you want to spend visiting.

» The history of Alcatraz : military fortress, high-security prison, Native American occupation site…

The less serious people among you can directly skip to the visit description just below ! (There will be no quizz anyway don’t worry…)

Anyway, as I was talking about it before, we know Alcatraz mostly for its prison function, but the military fortress was initial built in the early 1850’s in order to protect San Francisco bay and more generally the US West coast. The first garrison settled in Alcatraz in 1859, at the end of the construction period. After the Civil War, some modernization projects were initiated but never finished. Alcatraz, after some changes, welcomed its first prisoners in 1868. The military prison function became official in 1909, with the start of the construction of a 600-cell block. The island was the perfect spot for this : the remoteness and the unpredictable weather definitely made the living conditions difficult and the escape possibilities reduced. It was around this time that the nickname The Rock was given. In 1933, Alcatraz welcomed its first civil prisoners and was quickly given away to the Federal Bureau of PrisonsThey converted the site into a high-security prison, incarcerating there infamous bandits, but also violent prisoners or those incapable to follow and live by the rules of the previous prison they were held at. The government wanted to make this prison a model of criminality fighting in the country, by according very few privileges to the inmates and emphasizing on the fact that escaping was (almost) impossible. For budgetary reasons, the prison of Alcatraz closed in 1963. These 29 years made the island quite famous and as soon as 1973, the site was opened to the public. Actually, the most part of the visit presents the high-security prison function, we will come back on that just below ! But before starting the discovery of the island, let’s talk about a last event, more recent, that also made a mark on the island history. On November 9th 1969, a group of 78 Native Americans took the island by storm during the night. Led by Richard Oakes, they wanted to promote their culture (philosophy, believes, language…) and were protesting for the creation of a Native American university on site. It is only after a year and a half that the occupants were driven out of the facilities by the authorities. Since then, Native Americans from the International Indian Treaty Council are still organizing a few ceremonies on the island on important dates (days during which visiting is not possible). Besides, for the nature lovers, the fauna and flora of the island are renown and preserved (the name Alcatraz comes from alcatraces, which means pelican in Spanish). You can observe numerous bird species, but also visit the gardens. Those were created during the military fortress era, looked after by the prison guards and their families and restored more recently.

Alcatraz

» Visiting the prison

So, did you skip the previous paragraph ? #spotted

After this short history, let’s cut to the chase : do you want to know more about the 29 years during which Alcatraz was a high-security prison ? It is the main reason to visit the place if I may say so. You can discover the day-to-day life of famous convicts like Al Big Al Capone, Robert Birdman of Alcatraz Strout or even George Machine Gun Kelly (and the other 1573 other inmates held in Alcatraz during this time). Of course, it is a prison, and the incarceration conditions were were quite rudimentary (okay, my prison knowledge is basically limited to Orange is the New Black, so I am not an expert, buuuut…). The only rights given to the prisoners were access to food, clothes, a roof and medical care. You will be able to discover the cells (isolation or regular block), but also the common-rooms like the cafeteria, the kitchen or the laundry room. You can imagine the day-to-day life of those men according to the location of their cell. In fact, those were divided in several blocks and you will be able to learn more about their characteristics by listening to the audioguide. You will also have access to the rooms reserved to the prison employees and you will know more about the life of the guards and their family on the island.

Alcatraz

» To get back to the initial question : is it possible to escape Alcatraz ?

The Alcatraz prison was world-known to be escape-proof… It is the main reason why the government would sent high-profile convicts on the island. However, it did not prevent the 14 escape attempts, tried by 36 prisoners, more or less clever and inventive. The majority was caught on the island itself or in the surrounding areas, others were shot during their operation. The most memorable attempt was the Battle of Alcatraz, orchestrated in 1946 by 6 inmates who managed to get to the keys and opened fire within the facilities. It finally ended up in a failure after a 2-day battle – 3 prisoners and 2 guards were killed, 18 injured. The survivors were sentenced to death penalty and life imprisonment . Officially, none of the inmates managed to escape the prison, but the mystery remains intact on the case of Frank Morris and the brothers John and Clarence Anglin… They escaped their cell in 1962 (you can actually visit it) and tried to gain San Francisco by the sea. Technically, only their personal belongings were found and the inmates were declared missing and assumed drowned. The story (or even the myth) is unclear about what they actually became after that… Clint Eastwood was inspired by this escape attempt for the movie Escape from Alcatraz.

Aaaaand… That’s it for the visit of Alcatraz island ! I hope you have found an answer to your questions : practical information, history, anecdotes… Do not hesitate to leave a comment if a subject has not been addressed, I will do my best to answer 🙂

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