Tag Archive | Alcatraz tour

California Road Trip: Alcatraz Island Federal Penitentiary

In my last post, I explored the history of Alcatraz Island prior to its time as a federal maximum security prison.  But no visit to The Rock would be complete without seeing the prison building.  The cell block that visitors see today was constructed between 1909 and 1912, and became home to federal prisoners in 1933 when the Army Fortress was deactivated and transferred to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

Alcatraz Island Penitentiary Sign

Alcatraz Island Penitentiary Sign

When you visit, you receive an audio tour (available in several languages) with headphones to wander around the prison and hear about the various areas of the prison. The audio tour also gives you information about some of the prisoners that were housed at Alcatraz, their daily lives in captivity, and details about the building itself.  The tour is narrated by several of the former guards and inmates, and informational posters give you some details on these men.

A Few of the General Population Cells

A Few of the General Population Cells

Me During My Incarceration

Me During My Incarceration

The prison had over 600 cells during its military prison days, but during its time as a federal prison there were 336 regular cells, 36 segregation cells and 6 solitary confinement cells in use. The rest were used as storage. The regular cells were 9 ft. by 5 ft.; smaller than the segregation cells which were 9 ft. by 7 ft.  The general population lived in cells along two main corridors, and there were 3 stories of cells looking out onto each corridor.  At one end was a gun gallery where guards had a clear view of the corridors and the fronts of the cells.

One of the General Population Cells at Alcatraz - 5 Feet by 9 Feet

One of the General Population Cells at Alcatraz – 5 Feet by 9 Feet

We got to see “The Hole” – the solitary confinement cells where prisoners were housed when they got unruly. In the hole, you were alone and confined in the dark for 24 hours each day – no exercise, no entertainment, no nothing.  You didn’t even get a toilet or a sink – just a hole in the floor – YUCK…  It was different than I expected though – I thought those cells would be in a basement or dungeon. Instead, they were right on the main floor with all the other cells – it only got dreary once they put you in that room and closed the window in the door.

The tour doesn’t talk about this, but legend has it that a malevolent presence with glowing red eyes terrorized prisoners in “The Hole” – supposedly one man screamed throughout the night about this entity, but when guards checked to see if he was alone they found nothing with him. However, in the morning the man had stopped screaming and was found dead, with hand marks around his neck. Guards are said to have counted an extra inmate that morning at role call; the dead man was seen in the lineup and then disappeared.

"The Hole" Cells in Cell Block D - the Treatment Unit.  No Inmate Could Be Assigned to The Hole for More Than 19 Days

“The Hole” Cells in Cell Block D – the Treatment Unit. No Inmate Could Be Assigned to The Hole for More Than 19 Days

And of course, the tour details the escape attempts. During the life of the federal prison, there were 14 escape attempts involving 36 prisoners. Of these prisoners; 23 were recaptured, 6 were shot and killed, 2 drowned and 5 are missing and presumed dead.  Three of these men dug out of their cells using homemade tools and spoons, climbed up the pipes through the utility corridors to the roof, made it down to the ground, and set out in homemade rafts and were never seen nor heard from again.

The Cell that John Anglin Dug Out of in 1962.  He Made it Off the Island, But Was Never Heard From Again, and Presumed Drowned.

The Cell that John Anglin Dug Out of in 1962. He Made it Off the Island, But Was Never Heard From Again, and Presumed Drowned.

The most famous of the escape attempts is called the Battle of Alcatraz, and it occurred in 1946.  A group of 6 prisoners (there were 3 ringleaders), managed to overpower a guard while he was searching an inmate who was returning to his cell.  They then used a homemade bar spreader to spread the bars that protected the gun gallery (the thinnest inmate starved himself so he could fit between the bars).  At this point, they were armed and thought they had the keys to let themselves out.  However, a brave guard had handed over all the keys, except the one they needed.  He had hidden that one key in the toilet of the cell where he was being held hostage.  They were trapped.

The Actual Bars and Bar Spreader From the Battle of Alcatraz in 1946

The Actual Bars and Bar Spreader From the Battle of Alcatraz in 1946

Meanwhile, other guards were returning to the cell block from duties guarding the prisoners working during the day, and they were captured one by one as they returned.  When they didn’t check in, another guard was sent to check… and another… and another…  After some time, the inmates had nine guards held hostage.  The inmates were frustrated at this point because without the key to the door, there was no escape, so they decided to kill the guards who could testify against them.  They fired into the cells were the guards were being held.  Five were wounded, three seriously, and one guard, Bill Miller, later died of his wounds.  At that point, 3 of the inmates figured they should distance themselves from the situation and returned to their cells; the other three decided they wouldn’t surrender.  They got up on top of the cell block to fight it out.

The other guards had figured out what was going on by this point, and entered the gun gallery – a massive firefight occurred – one guard was killed and four others were wounded.  Prison officials then cut the electricity and waited for night to fall.  Guards went back into the gun gallery to provide cover for several other guards who entered the cell block unarmed in order to free the captive guards.  The guards in the gun gallery couldn’t get a clean shot at the inmates perched on top of the cell block though, so after the captive guards were freed and evacuated, they called in some heavier firepower – The Marines.  The Marines shelled the prison, and drilled holes in the roof and dropped grenades in to corner the inmates.  They were eventually trapped in a utility corridor.

The Gun Gallery at the End of the Cell Block - Where Armed Guards Kept an Eye on Inmates

The Gun Gallery at the End of the Cell Block – Where Armed Guards Kept an Eye on Inmates

The Marines entered the building and fired into the utility corridor at intervals throughout the day – the three inmates were killed in the corridor.  The three other inmates who had returned to their cells had been identified by the guards, and were tried for their roles in the escape attempt and the murder of the two guards – two were executed and the third received an additional life sentence.  As a result of the Battle of Alcatraz, security was increased and there was not another escape attempt until 1956.

The prison was closed in 1963, because operating costs on Alcatraz were more than three times what it cost at other federal prisons in the country (more than $10 per prisoner per day vs. $3 elsewhere).  Additionally, residents of San Francisco were becoming increasingly frustrated with the sewage being discharged in the bay from the prisoners and the guards and families that lived there. The last prisoners were moved to other correctional facilities around the country.

All in all, Alcatraz is a very lonely place.  Inmates in the early years were not allowed to talk, and throughout the prison years, inmates could have one visit from family once a month.  Inmates typically worked during the day, but outside of work, inmates were only allowed one hour each day of recreation.  The day we were there, it was very cold, and that was on an unseasonably warm, sunny March day in San Francisco.  It must have been brutally cold there in winter.  During the history of the federal prison, 15 prisoners died of natural causes, 5 committed suicide and 8 were murdered. 3 guards were also murdered during escape attempts.

Even though there are tons of people everywhere inside the prison, the tour is pretty good at moving you through efficiently, so it isn’t as claustrophobic as you might imagine. Jon is frequently annoyed around crowds, and Alcatraz didn’t bother him at all. And of course the other areas of the island are not crowded at all, because people really just want to see the prison.  We really enjoyed our visit and it was well worth getting up so early in the morning.  If you have the opportunity – GO!  But do buy your tickets online, well before your visit!

California Road Trip: The History of Alcatraz Island

On our full day in San Francisco, we started out by getting up really early to go to Alcatraz Island.  I was really looking forward to this part of the trip, and it almost didn’t happen.  You see, I looked at the website, and it told me that during the peak season, tickets could sell out a week in advance.  No worries, I thought – we were going in March.  On a weekday.  But I didn’t know quite which days we would be in San Francisco and what else we would be doing there.

So, when I went to book the tickets, they were sold out…  For the next nine days…  I was really bummed!  But I did some sleuthing and found some internet rumors that you could purchase same day tickets on a walk-up basis for the first boat each day.  You had to get in line early, because they were first-come, first-served.  Once the 40 or 50 tickets were sold, the rest of the people in line were out of luck.

Luckily, Jon loves me, and agreed to get up super-early to get in line for the Black Friday of Alcatraz Island tickets.  Since we were walking, we had to head out from the hotel for the 1.7 mile walk to the pier – at 6:00 am!  How’s that for nerdly dedication!  The ticket booth opened at 7:30, and we got there at 6:40 – we were the second couple in line, behind a dental student from Los Angeles and his wife (they were friendly and we had a lot of time to chat).  The internet rumors were true, and they did have the promised holy grail of walk-up tickets.  So, we had tickets on the first ferry to go out to the island at 8:45 am, but you have to get ready to board the boat at 8:20 am.

We got on the boat with about 150 of our closest friends and headed out.  The trip over to the island was nice; we got some good views of the city and I was able to get some good photos. It was pretty cold though – San Francisco was warm that day – about 65 in the afternoon, but I had to wear my winter coat, gloves and hat during the trip (granted it didn’t help that we had been standing around in the cold for a couple of hours at that point).  Alcatraz is about 1.5 miles out from the mainland, so it didn’t take long and the ride was pretty smooth.

San Francisco from the Alcatraz Ferry

San Francisco from the Alcatraz Ferry

I’m sure that you all know that Alcatraz was a federal prison for thirty years, from 1933 to 1963. But you may not know that Alcatraz has a history that extends much further back. Alcatraz was first formed when it pushed up into the Bay about 10,000 years ago.  The local Indians believed that the island was cursed, but there is some evidence that they traveled out to the island to collect bird eggs. Spanish explorers first “discovered” it in 1775 and named it La Isla de los Alcatraces (the island of the pelicans). The Spanish built a few buildings on the island but didn’t do much else with it. The Americans purchased the island in 1850 and set about creating a military garrison post there; in order to shore up the coastal defenses protecting San Francisco.

The U.S. Government also decided that it would be a good place for a lighthouse to guide ships into San Francisco Bay. So Alcatraz Island became home to the first lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States in 1854.  The original lighthouse was built with a third order Fresnel Lens.  The first keeper was paid $750 a year – barely enough to cover his food.  Unsurprisingly, he was dismissed because he was absent for long periods from the lighthouse – probably because he had a second job…

The lighthouse currently on the island replaced the original lighthouse in 1909, because when the Army decided to build the current cell house structure, it became apparent that the original lighthouse would not be tall enough to be seen over the structure and the buildings and sheds were considered unsightly.  The current lighthouse is 84 feet tall and constructed from cement.  It was automated in 1963, and is still in use today, operated by the U.S. Coast Guard.

The Warden's House Ruin and the Lighthouse on Alcatraz Island

The Warden’s House Ruin and the Lighthouse on Alcatraz Island

While the first lighthouse was being constructed, building was also going on for the military garrison. Eventually the garrison would house about 200 men.  During the Civil War, Alcatraz was used to house war prisoners, which was its first use as a prison. During this period, building continued, and by the end of the Civil War, they realized that the defensive technology being utilized at Alcatraz was largely being rendered obsolete by new advances. It was at that point that officials decided to change the focus of Alcatraz from a defensive structure to a detention site. A brick jailhouse was built in 1867, and the island began being used as a long-term detention center for military prisoners in 1868 (confederates caught on the west coast were among the first military prisoners housed there). It just grew from there.

Alcatraz Island - Buildings (L to R): Lighthouse, Warden's House Ruin, Cell Block Building, Barracks/Apartments

Alcatraz Island – Buildings (L to R): Lighthouse, Warden’s House Ruin, Cell Block Building, Barracks/Apartments

The Spanish-American War gave the island a whole new crop of military prisoners, expanding the population to about 450. The 1906 earthquake generated the first batch of civilian prisoners, when prisoners from the mainland were transferred there after the earthquake to ensure that they would not escape. During World War I, conscientious objectors were imprisoned at Alcatraz.

Alcatraz Island  - The Cell Block Building is in the Upper Left

Alcatraz Island – The Cell Block Building is in the Upper Left

The Island contains several buildings from before the federal prison era  – some are still intact and some are in ruins.  The original brick barracks, built in the 1860s, were added onto in 1905, resulting in the structure that is seen today right next to the dock.  During the prison era, the soldiers’ barracks were remodeled into apartments for the guards and their families.    The Chapel was built in the 1920s, but despite its name, it wasn’t used as a chapel.  Instead, it was living space for single officers and workshops.  The Post Exchange/Officers Club was built in 1910, and was a general store where soldiers could buy goods.  During the prison era, it functioned as a recreation hall with a dance hall and bowling alley.

Military Chapel Building - Built 1910 - Mission Revival Architectural Style

Military Chapel Building – Built 1910 – Mission Revival Architectural Style

Sadly, the Post Exchange, Warden’s House and the Lighthouse Keeper’s Quarters were burned in a 1970 fire during the Indian Occupation of the Island.  The light tower was also damaged by the fire.  There is still some dispute about the cause of the fire; the official story is that it was accidental.  I do find it curious though, because the Post Exchange isn’t near the Warden’s House and Lighthouse; and the Military Chapel is in between and it didn’t burn.

I really enjoyed wandering around the island and checking out the ruined structures; and we hadn’t even been inside the prison yet!  I’ll post about that next!