No visit to San Francisco would be complete without a trip to the prison island of Alcatraz – a curious emblem for a city whose brand is based on freedom and opportunity.
My journey starts at Pier 33 and the queues at the ticket office confirm that pre-booking was essential. The Alcatraz Flyer completes the short journey within 20 minutes and on a clear sunny day like today it’s a pleasure to sit on deck and watch the now familiar shoreline fronted by the Embarcadero and topped by the Coit Tower, from a different perspective.
As Alcatraz looms large it appears to take on a Tracey Island look. At 12 acres the island isn’t massive but is dominated by purposeful looking construction. The water tower in particular has the look of a 1950’s conceived rocket ship.
On arrival I’m surprised to see graffiti daubed on the dockside building. This dates back to 1960s when, following the closure of the penitentiary, the island was occupied by American Indians demanding the return of the land to native peoples. This makes more sense when you understand the long history of displacement of indigenous tribes by latter-day settlers in this area.
After an inordinately long rambling introduction speech from a tour guide visitors are issued with an audio guide and headphones.
The prison was built to inter the hardest criminals and opened in 1934. Incarcerates were hand picked to serve their time here if they had caused problems at other jails or if they were high profile criminals deemed worthy of the tightest level of security. Mobster Al Capone was the highest profile inmate to fall into this category.
I haven’t seen inside any other prisons (honest!) so my judgement may be skewed but the prison experience can’t have been a good one. Three levels of closely packed cells must have made for a hot-house of intensity.
There was no privacy with “just” bars separating inmates and guards.
The cells themselves were spartan and, should an inmate to be allowed to keep a cat, swinging it would only have made it angry due to the tight dimensions on offer. Of course, nowadays your average London estate agent would pass this accommodation off as offering minimalist light-rich open-plan living in an exclusive location, but, like your average London flat, a spell inside here cannot have been fun.
Given the excitement and dynamism of “America’s favourite city” incarceration on Alcatraz island – a modest giant’s stride from the mainland – must have been incredibly tough on the criminals. They would have clearly seen the harbour lights across the water and at new year wine-soaked celebratory voices would be carried across the water on a favourable wind. Few prisons can have taunted their inmates so much with what they were missing.
Everyone knows that Alcatraz’s great claim to fame was its supposed inescapability. A number of attempts were made but the reputation for security was well deserved. Cells have walls on three sides and thick bars on the other. The cell block is secure and the complex surrounded by high walls, barbed wire fences and scrutinised by armed guards posted in lookout towers. Then there’s the fact that the Island is separated from the mainland by treacherous currents. So nobody escaped then…
The authorities would claim so but in 1962 an ingenious escape attempt was made. Three inmates, Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin used modified spoons to remove air vents from their cells and enlarge the holes so they could squeeze their bodies through. Preparations for this must have taken place over some considerable time and cardboard grate covers were made to disguise the ongoing deception while accordion playing drowned out the chiselling.
On the night of the escape papier-mache heads with real hair were positioned in their beds and after squeezing through the air vents the escapees climbed the network of pipes behind their cells to gain access to the rooftop.
They made it as far as the water where they departed the island on improvised rafts fashioned out of a waterproof rain coats. The official line is that they drowned in the bay but the bodies were never found and a popular theory is that they made it ashore and fled to Mexico. We don’t know what happened but without any evidence Alcatraz still claims to have never lost a prisoner. Group 4 should take note.
In an effort to prevent prisoners planning breakouts some measures were taken to make life inside tolerable for the “guests”.
The recreation yard was cramped but afforded inmates fresh air and exercise – much valued privileges. All sorts of games were invented in an environment where boredom was the enemy. A policy was adopted to provide a superior quality of prison food in order to maintain morale.
This simple measure probably made a lot of difference to lifers who would have had experienced worse fare in other joints. The menu was undoubtedly better than the inedible guff doled out on my American Airlines flight UA0959 a few days earlier. That said, unlike the canteen at Alcatraz, my aircraft wasn’t equipped with tear gas cannisters that the flight attendants could set off at the first sign of unrest. It’s my guess that American Airlines only baulked at this on the basis of cost however.
The island wasn’t just home to the criminals. A community of prison guards and their families also lived here and children would catch a boat to the mainland each day to attend school. The old staff houses are in a varying state of repair but gardens testify to the contrasting existences for these two communities, separated in freedom and lifestyle like peoples either side of the Berlin Wall.
It’s hard to imagine life on the domestic side of the divide now that the island is populated only by colonies of sea birds. People say the complex feels spooky. I don’t know about that but it certainly doesn’t lack in atmosphere and any visitor would be leaden hearted not to visualise life as an inmate and feel a pang of hopelessness.
My visit has lived up to the hype and this is certainly a must-do activity if you are in the area. I can’t help thinking that Alcatraz was intended more as a statement of authority by the government ahead of a truly efficient addition to the prison system infrastructure. The irony is that since closing in 1963 its re-emergence as a film set and tourist attraction has transformed it into a true asset for San Francisco. I wonder what the old lags think of that…