'You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Anything else you get is a privilege.'
Initially a lighthouse and now a national park, the famous isolated prison on a rock sits two and a half kilometres off the San Francisco coastline. Only as the boat smoothly approached its pier from its ten minute ride does a sense of foreboding come over me. The plain white-washed buildings and salty cool air add a sinister feel to this rocky outcrop – part of the government of the day’s plan to appear tough on crime.
Made famous by movies, some of America’s most infamous criminals were guests at this escape-proof prison. Machine-gun Kelly, the Birdman of Alcatraz (though Stroud never kept canaries at Alcatraz!!), Al Capone and Clint Eastwood (oops, not the last guy, that was the movie) all spent time during the thirty years it acted as a prison until its closure in 1963.
Walking down Broadway, the main prison passageway, shafts of life struggle through the narrow skylights to light an interminable string of tiny cells, each just five feet wide. My outstretched arms can touch both walls at once, a tiny wooden bed, chair and small shelf furnish the Spartan concrete cage. Yet the prison was shutdown as the cost per room exceeded that of San Francisco's finest luxury hotel.
I feel the strict regimented life as I meander my way from the exercise yard (the playground) with its sombre grey walls, past the barber’s shop, the showers and library to the dining hall. Stunning vistas of the San Francisco skyline are visible from many vantage points – surely an extra torture as the prisoner’s munch an unappetising breakfast or snuggle up in their bunks at night.
Cell Block D contain the chilling solitary confinement cells with their tiny dingy cells holding misbehaving prisoners
The audio tour is the highlight of the visit and brings the place to life. Crisply told with entertaining accounts and detailed stories of prison life, the sobering narration complete with sound effects is fully conducted by past prisoners and ex-guard.
Using a re-fashioned vacuum cleaner motor and stolen spoons, three prisoners chiselled away damp concrete near an air-vent to make a famous escape on a raft of raincoats. To gain time, paper-mache dummies slept in their bed to pass the torch check during the night. Of the fourteen escape attempts and 36 escapees, these three remain unaccounted for – either drowned or soaking up life in Mexico?
Despite guards being unarmed within the prison and without keys on the prison floors, another tale details the capture of guards by prisoners who obtain guns and keys. Guards trapped in two cells are shot at point blank range. Cracks in the concrete floor from grenades highlight the re-capture of the prison as marines regained control.
Around the island free from predators, various seabirds openly nest raising their chicks without threat.
While Alcatraz may sound touristy and clichéd, the boat journey across San Francisco Bay and the audio guide makes for a fascinating tour, realistically capturing the daily torturous life, unusual larger-than-life characters and occasional dramas of this famous island prison.
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