No visit to San Francisco is complete without a visit to the (in)famous Alcatraz Island. This island is the heart of San Francisco Bay, just a mile and a quarter away from the sights and sounds of one of the most beautiful cities, has been a fort, a lighthouse and a prison. It was a notorious federal prison for almost 30 years, between 1934 and 1963 and housed some of America’s most dangerous prisoners, which is what the Island is famous for. Today, it is one of the national parks at the Golden Gate.
We got a glimpse of the island from the Vista point of Golden Gate Bridge. When Jay told the story of the island, I wanted to visit immediately. But the tickets were sold weeks in advance. We had to wait for almost two months to make a visit. We got the 12.30 slot. We had a heavy brunch and headed to Pier 33. The ferry takes approximately 15 minutes to reach the island. It is the nation’s first hybrid ferry – the eco friendly vessel is powered largely by solar panels, wind turbines, and grid electricity. The brief but beautiful ferry ride offers captivating views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the city. It was a little chilly on the ride.
The island is currently managed by National Park Services and their staff welcomed us. They gave us a guided tour about the history of the Island. Alcatraz Island is also the first lighthouse and US built fort on the West Coast, apart from the infamous federal penitentiary long off-limits to the public.
History says that, Alcatraz gets its name from the Spanish word “alcatraces” meaning pelicans. When the Spanish first sailed through San Francisco Bay in the 18th century, they were amazed to discover the island housing colonies of brown pelicans. They named the island “La Isla de los Alcatraces” and thus Alcatraz!
After the guided tour, we headed to the prison building where audio tour is offered. We were given a head set and a controller. The audio tour was really intersting. It gives us directons, like walk straight, turn right, hold etc. They give a brief description and lets us know what to look around. They capture us completely through the background sound which is in sync with the description (like the sound of boots of the guards, the sound of opening and closing of prison gate etc.) We can also pause the audio and just look around and when you are ready, just hit play and the tour will continue.
You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Anything else you get is a privilege.
-Number 5, Alcatraz Prison Rules and regulations, 1934.
This rule was one of the realities of life inside the walls of US Federal Penitentiary, Alcatraz isalnds.
I am not much a history person. But the history of Alcatraz (as a prison) was quite interesting to me. The average number of inmates was approx. 260. The ratio of guard to inmates were 3:1. There wer four cellblocks in the prison. ‘A’ Block was not used. B and C Blocks housed general population. D Block were for unruly inmates, also known as Isolation. The security measures of the Island was designed in a fashion that the escape attempts were beyond imagination. Does that mean that nobody ever escaped? No. In the 29 years that Alcatraz served as a federal penitentiary, 36 escape attempts were there, two of them have tried twice. All but three were recaptured.
We can return to the Bay Area anytime til 6.30. The return ferry plies every 30 minutes. Back home, we saw the BBc documentery on Alcatraz and the movie, “Escape from Alcatraz”.