It was an unusually warm 75 degrees Fahreheit under gorgeous, cloudless skies in early February when we headed off for Pier 33 near Fisherman’s Wharf to hop on Alcatraz Cruises for a glorious 15-minute journey with absolutely stunning views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge and the beautiful bay.
Such a backdrop is juxtaposition indeed for the horrific stories that soon follow about inhospitable conditions at Alcatraz. Upon disembarkation, as luck would have it, Richie the Ranger carrying his burlap bag of props was ready to begin a thoroughly animated “Six Hats of Alcatraz” walking tour up the hill. At each pivotal stop along our route, a different hat was produced to stage characters from the past as our guide transported us to another time at this place.
Do ask for this excellent tour as well as the audio headset which allows visitors to walk through the prison cells, cafeteria, exercise yard and even into an isolation chamber known as “the Hole”. The Cellhouse Audio Tour narration by actual former correctional officers and inmates coupled with sound effects of iron doors slamming, food riots and gunshots fired during an escape attempt known as “The Battle of ’46” is extremely well done. See the chiseled walls behind air ducts leading to drainpipes and homemade dummy heads that spelled out the escape plan and what went wrong.
Many of the five-by-nine-foot cells are still set up with sink, toilet, shelf and small cot so visitors can see the conditions as they existed. Reach your arms out and touch both walls of the cell to sense the small space where 300 prisoners spent between18-23 hours a day, depending upon good behavior, for an average of eight years each.
You’ll have no trouble imaging why the frequently cold, windy and foggy days on “The Rock” earned Alcatraz its infamous name tag, film renditions and why prisoners sent there felt it was the end of the line. From 1934 to 1963 when the island operated as a maximum security prison, there were 14 separate escape attempts by 36 hardened criminals, 23 men shot and killed including two security guards, two prisoners drowned and five who disappeared were never seen again and presumed drowned. Yes, there are sharks but no man-eating sharks invade the bay off the Pacific Ocean. Never mind; icy cold waters, tide and strong currents lap this isolated island rock and make the tempting, relatively do-able swim impossible. One prisoner did make it as far as the rocks below the Golden Gate Bridge where he was found near death and swiftly returned to the island.
My most haunting memory of the visit was learning that prisoners who could so readily see the shining city across the bay would even hear laughter and music from the annual New Year’s celebrations at yacht club parties, amplified by the stretch of water and carried to their ears behind bars. As Ranger Richie pointed out to our group, the stunning views were a constant, cruel reminder in contrast to the desperate lives these inmates suffered while incarcerated on “The Rock”, from where escape may look tempting, but was simply impossible.
See www.alcatrazcruises.com for tickets and ferry schedules
Hear actual audio clips from cellhouse tour www.cr.nps.gov/museum/exhibits/alca/sounds.html