Just over a kilometre from San Francisco bay lies a rocky outcrop, home to America’s infamous and disused prison, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary.  ‘The Rock’, as it is commonly known, has a haunting presence, its dark and troubled history personified by the fog which lingers at its base.    Once a military prison, Alcatraz gained notoriety in 1934, when it became America’s first off-shore maximum security prison.  The remoteness of the island, along with the treacherous sea conditions, earned it the reputation of being escape-proof – and while official records confirm this to be true, there is certainly an air of mystery surrounding a number of attempts…

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Over the 29 years that the prison was in operation, it housed some of America’s most dangerous and better known criminals, from Mickey Cohen to Al Capone. These men were so notorious, so dangerous, that no ordinary prison could house them. As the saying goes; “Break the rules you go to prison.  Break the prison rules you go to Alcatraz.”   In 2013, my boyfriend and I decided to visit the island which had stared at us tauntingly throughout our time in San Francisco.  As we waited to board the ferry, amidst a sea of camera-wielding tourists and families, I began to wonder what exactly made this site so popular today; why, after all these years, were people so keen to visit somewhere so grim and isolated?  Was it the excitement of walking in the footsteps of some of America’s most notorious criminals that drew us in by the dozen, or was it our deep-rooted fascination with the darker side of humanity?  Either way, I was determined to find out.

Stepping off the boat, the first thing that struck me was the quietness of the island.  Despite the number of people, it was as though a mist of calmness had descended, those who made their way to the prison contemplating what was to come, those who were returning to the ferry in a state of gentle reflection.  As we climbed the steep hill to the penitentiary, I wondered what it must have felt like to arrive here as a prisoner all those years ago; passing under the imposing watchtower, you can’t help but shudder as you imagine a life spent under the watchful eyes of armed guards.

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After passing through the main entrance, you are guided to the area where inmates would once have collected their new belongings.  Now, it is where tourists pick up their audio guides.  I’m usually a bit reluctant to do the whole audio guide thing – let’s face it, they’re not the most social of things – but as most people seemed to be grabbing one, I decided to put my prejudice aside and join the masses.  I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised.  The tape was fantastic, giving a wealth of interesting information about the prison, but also a number of first-hand accounts from former prison wardens and inmates themselves.  Because everyone was listening so intently, the prison itself was incredibly quiet and atmospheric.

Walking through the narrow corridors of Cell Block B, where a majority of the prisoners were housed, it was hard to believe that as many as three hundred prisoners had lived here at any one time.  Built over three levels, the tightly packed cells were lit only by a narrow strip of light from the skylight above, and the sense of oppression lingered still in the air.

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At only four by six feet, the cells were unfathomably small; to put it into perspective, Stuart is 6ft 2, and could quite easily touch both walls with his arms outstretched.  Many of the prisoners turned to creative pursuits to brighten up their accommodation; some painted watercolors and hung charcoal drawings – others took to graffiti.  Personal items were few and far between, though with good behaviour over time, some inmates had gathered quite a collection.  As I ventured into a cell, taking in the closeness of its walls, I could only wonder at how it would have felt to spend twenty hours of the day in such a confined space, as well as how much the prisoners must have valued the brief time that they spent outside of those four walls, in the library, the mess hall or the courtyard.

Prisoners were encouraged to exercise outside everyday, regardless of the bitter winds.  This must have filled the prisoners with the most conflicting emotions; on the one hand, they were gifted with the most spectacular views out over San Francisco Bay.  On the other, it must have been torturous to be so near, and yet so far, from civilization; to be able to see yachts in the harbour, to hear planes flying above, to watch fireworks light the sky on the fourth of July.

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It was no wonder, I thought, as I gazed out across the water,that so many prisoners had attempted – or considered attempting – to escape the island.  From where we stood, the shore seemed tangeabley close – the swim just possible. It was entirely possible that over time, desperation could override the fear of getting caught, or drowning, or succumbing to the sharks.

In total, thirty-six men tried to escape the island; twenty-three were caught, six were killed, two drowned.  Five remain unaccounted for…

Most people visit Alcatraz to find out what life was like as a prisoner, but what I found really interesting was the story of the staff.  Most of the correctional staff who worked on Alcatraz lived there too, many with their families.  Though the apartment buildings are now derelict, you can still walk through the remnants of the village, and it’s amazing to think what it must have been like to be part of this close-knit island community, brought together by something as unusual and harrowing as a maximum security prison.  One thing’s for sure, though – they sure had an impressive view!

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In 1963, It was decided that the penitentiary would close.  In the end, the cost of running a prison on an island – along with the impracticalities – outweighed the benefits.  Once the inmates had been relocated, there was no need for the staff to stay, and so the island lay virtually abandoned for a number of years, home only to the occasional protester and an ever-expanding colony of gulls.

Today, the island serves as a museum to the public, but it is also a protected National Park. The ground once trod by some of America’s most dangerous men is now rich with life, with colourful fauna nestled between the rocks and rare sea birds roosting across the outcrop. It is a strangely beautiful place, and as you look across to the beautiful city, with the fog rolling over the hills, it can be all too easy to forget the island’s troubled past.

As we made our way back to the ferry, my eyes were drawn to a colourful garden. It seemed to out of place, on an island so infertile, that plants as wild and well-maintained as this could exist. This garden, I later learned, was cultivated and sustained by the inmates. It has been preserved by local authorities ever since. It seems so poignant that on a site so dismal and abandoned, something so precious could exist, that despite the island’s sadness, something beautiful remains.

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About The Author

A twenty-something-year-old with a penchant for travel and a never-ending supply of terrible puns.

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