I finally had another chance to go on a tour of Alcatraz Island last July 11, 2005. The first time I visited Alcatraz was in 1977 when I had a brief stopover in San Francisco on my way back home to the Philippines right after I completed my graduate degree at Ohio State University. The penitentiary at Alcatraz was already closed for good some 14 years prior to my first visit.

It was a bright and sunny Monday mid-afternoon when my grandson Kyle and I boarded the Blue and Gold Ferry that departed from Pier 41 in San Francisco. The pier is just a short walk from one of San Francisco's popular landmarks - Fisherman's Wharf. It was summer and the temperature was about 90 degrees F. I only began to feel the cold wind blowing on my face as the ferry was about midway to Alcatraz. Luckily I came prepared and brought along a jacket for the 15-minute trip to the island. However, I didn't find a need to put on my jacket when we were already in Alcatraz since the temperature was just as hot as that at Pier 41. I also brought along my digital camera to take as many photographs so I could share these with anyone interested.

Immediately upon arrival at Alcatraz, you'll get a brief orientation from a park ranger (warning about the seagulls, where are the toilets, etc). The National Park Service has a lot of activities to help you learn about Alcatraz Island. There's a self-guided tour booklet, ranger-led Alcatraz tours, an orientation film, occasional visiting authors of books about Alcatraz and - best of all - the audio tour.

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Alcatraz Island is located in the middle of San Francisco Bay in California. From brochures, publications, and information I gathered during my first and this recent visit, I learned that the island was formerly used as a military stockade and later as a maximum security prison. The island has been home to bank robbers and murderers, Confederate sailors, "renegade" Indians and military deserters. Today, the island is a historic site supervised by the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and is open to tours.

Alcatraz is listed as a National Historic Landmark. Its name comes from the Spanish word for the gannet, a kind of seabird. The island is also known as "The Rock," and it was featured in a movie of the same name. The island is home to the now abandoned prison, the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States, early military fortifications, and natural features such as rock pools, a seabird colony, and unique views of the coastline.

The island was used a military fort from 1850 to 1933. The United States Disciplinary Barracks on Alcatraz were acquired by the United States Department of Justice on October 12, 1933. The island became a federal prison on January 1, 1934. During the 29 years it was in use, the jail held such notable criminals as Al Capone who did time for tax evasion. Machine Gun Kelly was locked up in Alcatraz for kidnapping and bank robbery. Robert Franklin Stroud, the "Bird man of Alcatraz" was sent to there for murder. On record, it was Alvin Karpis who served more time at Alcatraz than any other inmate.

Alcatraz became the end of the line for the worst offenders, criminals who attacked guards or those too famous for their own good. Alcatraz was also an experiment in isolation. While the government did consider land in Alaska for a maximum security prison site, the little island in the middle of the cold bay was too perfect and already a military prison, the very definition of isolation with San Francisco's city lights just out of reach.

Some of the punishment methods endured by prisoners at Alcatraz resemble torture: beatings with iron clubs, isolation, sensory deprivation, time spent in windy dungeons, bread and water diets. Life on "The Rock" meant hard labor and terrible conditions. From Alcatraz Prison Rules and Regulations: "You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention. Anything else you get is a privilege." J.A. Johnston, a former warden of Alcatraz once said, "To the men confined there, it is not only the ultimate in isolation but the most ironic because they are there in the midst of the activity of a busy harbor ... all reminding them that life is near but freedom far."

A staff of 90 guards was required to guard the 260 or so prisoners on the island. Many of the guards, about two-thirds of the staff, lived with their families on the island. Apartment buildings and wood frame houses were built. The Warden lived in a large house on the island. The elaborate structure that is the prison consists of 330-odd cells.

The penitentiary was closed for good on March 21, 1963. The prison closed because it was far more expensive to operate than other prisons of the time. It was easier to build a new, traditional land-bound prison than to pay for all the upkeep and support the Alcatraz prison required. After the prison closed in 1963, the island was unoccupied for 10 years, except for a period from 1969 and 1971 when it was taken over by a group of Native Americans as a political protest.

In 1969, a group of Native Americans affiliated with the American Indian Movement attempted to reclaim the land, saying that an 1868 federal treaty allowed Native Americans to use all federal territory that the government was not actively using. After nearly two years of occupation, the government forced them off.

During the prison's lifetime, only thirty-six attempted to escape. Most were recaptured without incident, seven were shot and only one is unaccounted for. Three escapees, Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin, disappeared from their cells on June 11, 1962. This attempt, popularized in the motion picture Escape from Alcatraz was among the most intricate ever devised. Though only some evidence was found that they died in their attempt, they are officially listed as "missing and presumed drowned." Plywood paddles and parts of a raft made from raincoats were found on Angel Island by the FBI. It is very likely that they did die in their attempt as, after all these years, no one has surfaced claiming to be or even to have seen the escapees.

Many of the original prison buildings on the island are gone now. Some burned during the American Indian occupation in the late 1960s, and the guard's residences were torn down in the early 1970s because they were deteriorated beyond repair. If you visit the island of Alcatraz today, you will find remnants of the following buildings and structures shown below.

The only permanent inhabitants are the birds and plants. Alcatraz Island is home to one of the largest western gull colonies on the west coast. Even on a busy day, the birds outnumber the humans. When the birds are nesting, some areas are blocked off to protect them. A big colony of birds can also create quite a stink - you may smell it before the boat reaches the dock.


Cellhouse Warden's House Lighthouse Water Tower
Military Chapel Dock Tower Barracks Power Plant
Light Industries Post Exchange Landing Wharf Apartment Ruins
Guardhouse & Sally Port Mortuary Recreation Yard Plants & Flowers
Island Birds Other Island Photos

The Cellhouse (See Photo Above) was built by the U.S. Army between 1909 and 1912. It was one of the largest reinforced concrete structures of its time. The four cellblocks: A, B, C, and D contained 600 cells on three tiers. The main corridor dividing Cellblocks B and C was dubbed "Broadway" and the open area at the north end of the cellblock that led into the dining hall was called "Times Square."

The ground floor of "Broadway" contained the least desirable cells. They were colder, had less privacy and were darker than the other cells. New inmates spent a month in quarantine in "Broadway." Also, White and Black prisoners were segregated midway down "Broadway," up until the last years of the prison's operation. The two main Cellblocks were interrupted and this area was called the "cut-off" which permitted guards to pass between the cellblocks and cover the entire cellhouse more effectively during their scheduled rounds.

D-Block contained forty-two cells and there was an ascending scale of punishment severity, from Isolation to Solitary to the Strip Cell. Isolation consisted of thirty-six cells, which were identical to those of the regular cell blocks. Here, the inmates in Isolation remained in the cells twenty-four hours a day. They took their meals there and were allowed only one 15-minute shower per week and given an hour per week in the recreation yard.

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The "utility corridor" is a narrow passage bisecting the Cellblocks over their entire length. This corridor served to bring plumbing, electricity, and ventilation ducts into the cells. These passages provided a route out of the Cellhouse in what was the most famous and ingenious escape from Alcatraz. It was through the ventilation holes in the back of their cells that three prisoners slipped into the utility corridor. From there they gained access to the roof of the Cellhouse from which they made it to the Bay.

The very end of the line was the Strip Cell and there was only one. As with Solitary, the Strip Cell was completely dark. In addition, there was neither a toilet nor sink, only a hole in the floor and the cell itself was not the only thing stripped. Prisoners were frequently put in naked, usually as punishment for destruction of their clothes, mattresses, or blankets. Time in the Strip Cell was generally brief, usually two days.

Be prepared before you go out for an Alcatraz Island tour. There is no food available on the island, and they usually don't sell it on the boat either, except for snacks, soda, and water. Hungry visitors should eat before they leave the bay shore or bring food with them. You could easily spend a few hours on Alcatraz, and it won't be much fun if you're hungry or thirsty. Take care of these primary needs before you go.

When you get your tickets, pay a few extra dollars for the audio tour. It turns an experience that would otherwise be mere observation into participation and understanding. The cell block transforms in your imagination as you walk down it and hear what the new convicts heard as they walked in. Guards and former prisoners share their experiences that bring the empty cells alive. On the tape former correctional officers and inmates describe the day to day routine, the harsh punishment meted out to troublemakers, and the tension that permeated every aspect of life. They also talk about some of the most famous prisoners and about the Battle of Alcatraz, one of the most violent escape attempts.

By the time you finish your tour, you have a real sense of how difficult life must have been, and the thought of spending more than a few minutes in one of the small bleak cells will almost certainly convince you to keep to the straight and narrow. After you visit the cellhouse, you can explore the rest of the island. Many of the building are in ruins and are off limits for safety reasons, but the views from the paths and overlooks are spectacular. You should allow about two hours to explore the island, and be sure to dress warmly and wear comfortable shoes.

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Visiting Alcatraz Island can be tiring for some tourists since the trek to the top of the cell house is a whopping one-quarter of a mile. It may not be a very steep climb, but for the elderly it can be a difficult uphill walk. Along the way there are places where one can stop to sit and rest. There is, however, a shuttle that operates each hour to carry old folks and handicapped visitors up the slope.

We spent a good three hours on Alcatraz and tried to explore every nook and cranny that was opened to visitors. I tried to take all the digital photographs I needed and hopefully what I have portrayed here will give you a good idea of what there is to see in the island. Alcatraz visitation starts at 9:30 a.m. with departures to the Island every half an hour. In the summer time the Island closes at 6:30 p.m. and at 4:30 p.m. the rest of the year. The only days Alcatraz Island is closed are Christmas Day and New Year's Day. The National Park Service strongly advises visitors to get advance ferry tickets from the Blue & Gold Fleet since tourist volume can be so heavy during the summer months. Tours can sometimes sell out a week in advance.

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