I’ve always been really intrigued by prison history and stories, from real life tales to fictional representations. I know, nerd alert, right? In particular, I loved the TV show Alcatraz, so visiting the infamous prison was incredibly high up on my list of things to do during my time in San Francisco. Currently ranked #2 out of over 500 things to do in the city by TripAdvisor, it’s a must-see attraction for San Fran visitors.
There are actually night tours available too – unfortunately I booked my tickets too late to get one, so headed via tram to Pier 33 in the San Francisco sunshine for my morning ferry.
Before hopping aboard the good ship Alcatraz, I had the chance to have a look around at the miniature version first – a scale model of the entire island. The amount of detail put into it was insane, and reading about the prison’s history got me even more excited for seeing the real thing.
Top tip for visiting Alcatraz: Arrive in plenty of time for your ferry departure so you can have a look around.
The ferry itself was a pretty short, relatively smooth crossing over – I obviously scrambled for a seat on the top deck to get the best views of the bay. With the breeze in my hair and on my face a welcome respite from the blazing sun, it was amazing to take in the views as we sped further and further from shore, and see Alcatraz Island itself looming ahead.
I almost felt chills – imagining what prisoners being carted off to Alcatraz must have felt like as the buildings grew bigger in view. Although, they obviously wouldn’t have been in a boat full of tourists, and in my mental picture it’s definitely stormy and dark on their journey out. Yep, I definitely have a top imagination.
The boat landed (do boats land?) on the dock after the short trip, and we all piled off onto the Alcatraz Dock, where a ranger gave us a little speech about the Island and prison. He also told off anyone who ran on ahead without listening to him – so yeah, don’t do that. It’s pretty strict rules-wise, you’re not allowed to eat anywhere on the island other than the dock – and when I saw the terrifying birds later on, I definitely understood why.
Top tip for visiting Alcatraz: Eat before you head to the island, or at the very least, tuck into your picnic before you head up to look around.
The Alcatraz Prison Tour
At the top of the hill was the prison itself, and after gazing around at water towers and a morgue, I stepped indoors to escape the sun and grab my headphones for the main attraction on the island, the Alcatraz Audio Tour.
Taking visitors through C-Block and along the corridors of cells, the audio tour was incredibly informative. Recorded by former guards and inmates, it definitely gives a real insight into what life in Alcatraz was like, with stories and sound effects that make the experience incredibly immersive.
The block is apparently haunted by Abie Maldowitz, a former inmate who was murdered in the laundry room. I can totally imagine this is a fact I’d want to forget if I was on the night tour…
Alcatraz Prison Cells
One of the things I was most excited about was peeking into the cells themselves – most are now empty, but a few have been furnished with re-creations of how the cells would have looked when the prison was actually in use. Tiny spaces with peeling and cracked paint on the walls, stark metal furnishings and worn toilets and sinks – I definitely don’t envy the criminals who spent years locked up in these cells.
If prisoners were well-behaved, they were allowed some form of entertainment in their cells – from musical instruments to books and art supplies.
One of the most thrilling aspects of the tour for me was hearing about the prison’s only known escape, which took place in June 1962. Inmates Clarence Anglin, John Anglin and Frank Morris used ventilation shafts in their cells that they’d been widening over the past six months to escape into an unguarded utility corridor behind the cells. Climbing up to the cell block roof, they used stolen and donated materials to create a makeshift raft for their escape.
To avoid their absence being noticed, they created realistic ‘dummy’ heads from soap and toilet paper, and decorated them with paint and hair from the prison barbers. Using clothes and towels under the sheets and the dummy heads, they were able to escape undetected.
To this day, it’s unknown whether any or all of the three escapees made it to land or drowned in the cold waters in their attempt.
An unsuccessful escape attempt is also one of the best-known Alcatraz tales – referred to as ‘The Battle of Alcatraz’. On May 2nd 1946, Bernard Coy and Marvin Hubbard managed to overpower a guard and released fellow prisoners Joseph Cretzer and Clarance Carnes. Coy managed to use a bar-spreading device to widen the bars protecting the gun gallery and squeeze through – he’d starved himself for weeks so he could fit. Lowering weaopons and keys to his fellow inmates below, they began to release other inmates and take guards hostage.
However, with nowhere to go, their escape plan was doomed to fail – but in the process, two guards (William A. Miller and Harold Stites) were killed, along with Cretzer, Coy, and Hubbard.
Hearing the stories of Alcatraz really brought it to life for me – I mean, I really enjoyed just looking around and taking it all in, but I do love a good story, and Alcatraz sure has plenty…
After exploring C-Block, the tour took us to the solitary confinement wing – small, dark, dank rooms with big heavy doors and bare bones facilities. Prisoners could be kept for up to nineteen days at a time in a solitary confinement cell – with no stimulation and minimal light. I don’t think I could manage even an hour in one of these without crying for my mum and begging to be let out.
The audio tour invites visitors to go into the cells, shut their eyes and imagine how it would feel to be locked away, with a former inmate describing his experience of solitary confinement. That pesky imagination of mine definitely came in handy, as even a few minutes inside the cell made me feel pretty claustrophobic, and I got out pretty quickly just in case a ghostly presence decided it wanted me to stay…
(I don’t normally believe in ghosts – but in the Alcatraz atmosphere, it’s hard to not feel slightly creeped by the thought of it sometimes…)
Opening a door into the sunlight again, the tour took us outside the prison to see the old Warden’s House and one of the Island’s watchtowers. In the distance, I took in the San Francisco skyline – a harsh realisation of how close to yet far from freedom they were for any prisoner who managed to catch sight of it.
Top tip for visiting Alcatraz: Feel free to take your time – I’d definitely advise getting an early boat over, then you can spend as much time on the island as you please.
As well as the cells and exterior, we also got to have a look ‘behind the scenes’ in the staff areas of the prison – including the warden’s office and main Control Room. With a display of the genuine prison guard uniforms and cryptic vaults, the area was as intriguing as the cells themselves.
The prison’s four wardens lived in the now-burnt-out Warden’s House between the years of 1934-1963, a mansion with lavish surroundings. Built alongside Alcatraz Lighthouse, the house had incredible views over San Francisco Bay. Today it stands in ruins, destroyed by fire in 1970 by the American Indian Movement Occupation of Alcatraz – other elements of which you can see around the Island, including a remaining sign on the dock. As well as the prison itself, there are also some really interesting aspects of Alcatraz history to be discovered on the Island.
Top tip for visiting Alcatraz: It’s not just about the prison – there are plenty more fascinating exhibits and corners of the island to look at.
Without a doubt, Alcatraz was one of my total US highlights and worth every cent. The stories and sights were a once-in-a-lifetime experience (well, until I go back to San Fran again, at least). The whole attraction is so well put together, and the audio tour in particular is captivating, informative and entertaining.
Top tip for visiting Alcatraz: If you want to go, make sure you book in plenty of advance – currently there are no tours online for the website I used until mid-August!
Just make sure they let you off the island again afterwards – I definitely wouldn’t want to be there alone when night falls…
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