If you are ever in San Francisco, and are wondering whether it's worth the trip to Alcatraz, let me help you out: Go! My husband and I visited California recently, and it was one of our favorite parts of the trip. It's very dramatic, taking the ferry over to the island, and immediately being met by the sign above. Really sets the mood for a prison tour (and the sign is 100% authentic, not made for tourists).
It's a bizzare place. On the one hand, Alcatraz housed some of the most dangerous and notorious criminals of the mid-1900s--Al Capone, "Creepy" Karpis, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, and Robert Stroud "Birdman of Alcatraz," to name a few. It was a brutal place. In 29 years, 36 prisoners tried to escape. Eight inmates were murdered by other inmates. Five inmates committed suicide. Fifteen died of "natural causes." The prison only held around 240 prisoners on average during the time it served as a federal penitentiary. A typical cell for these prisoners is below:
Typical Prison Cell
An "isolation" cell on D block--confinement here-- in a cell behind a closed door-- was perhaps the most punishing experience.
The prisoners could enjoy the library and a recreation area, but these "perks" did not do much to diminish the fact that they were living amongst some of the most dangerous criminals in the United States.
The library then....
The recreation area (see the baseball diamond?)
But, there was another side to Alcatraz. Ninety correctional officers worked in the prison, and many of them lived on Alcatraz Island with their families--wives and children. The children would take a boat to and from San Francisco to attend school, and, apparently they were considered the coolest kids in school because they lived on an exclusive island with a prison. They were allowed to bring classmates to the island for sleepovers, and these lucky children were among the few visitors that were allowed on the island while it served as a federal prison.
For these families, the island offered a completely different experience than the dangerous and deadly one that the prisoners faced. The island is incredibly beautiful, with views that are breathtaking.
There are incredible gardens on the island--accessible to the families, not the prisoners.
Now that you have the gist of the island, let's get to the good stuff. The escape plot. On June 11, 1962, Frank Morris and two brothers living in Alcatraz--John and Clarence Anglin--made good on a long-time plan to break out of the joint. For months, they had used homemade drills and spoons to dig around the pipe where their cell sink entered the wall.
Normal sink & wall
An escapee's cell--the hole was made by slowly chipping away at the wall with a spoon and homemade drill.
To cover up the holes they were making in each of their cells, the men fashioned cardboard and tobacco boxes so that they looked like the vent that should've been there.
Convincing cardboard vent used to cover-up the growing hole behind it.
In the meantime, the men made "dummy heads" out of soap, cement, and paint, so that on the night of their escape, they could evade detection during overnight head-counts.
On June 11, 1962, the three men finally acted on their plan. The placed their dummy heads under their blankets, and then crawled through the holes they had made in their cells, scaled the pipes in the utility corridor behind their cells, made it to the roof of Alcatraz, and then slid down a stove pipe outside and crept to the shoreline. Once they reached the water, the men inflated a raft they had made out of a raincoat, and drifted out into the bay. There's been no sign of them ever since.
The cell of an escapee, complete with the "dummy head" made to evade detection overnight.
A photo of an escapee's cell after he was discovered to be gone; a representation of how the escapees got out of Alcatraz.
A second notable episode in the prison's history was the Battle of Alcatraz in 1946. Basically, two prisoners had agreed that, as they returned to their cells after working for the day, when a corrections officer performed a routine frisk of one of them, the other would attack the officer and they would both then subdue the officer and free other conspiring prisoners.
The mastermind of this plot, Bernard Coy, a bank robber, had noticed that certain bars in Alcatraz were deformed in such a way that they could be bent. He created a device that could be used to spread the bars wider so that he could slip through and get into an area restricted for corrections officers only. He starved himself for some time so that he would have been able to squeeze through the small space between the widened bars. Coy's plan worked seamlessly (thus far), and he essentially gained control of much of the inside of the prison by capturing corrections officers and placing them all in a cell.
Coy needed to secure a certain key to get out into the yard, as their escape plan involved taking the daily boat from Alcatraz to San Francisco. However, in the process of trying several keys, the prisoners jammed the door lock and effectively locked themselves into the very room they were trying to escape from.
Things soon became deadly. When corrections officers tried to retake the prison, they were shot at by the prisoners, who had taken guns from the corrections officers they were holding captive. The captivity lasted two days, and in the end, three prisoners died and two corrections officers were killed. Marines were called in to gain control of the prison, and they did so by dropping grenades into the prison--the damage is still apparent today.
The floor still shows signs of where the grenades were dropped
In 1963, Alcatraz closed as a federal prison, but this was not the last chapter for this island. In fact, a year later, it became the site of a Native American "occupy" movement. Five years later, Native American activists moved to the island, and remained their for 19 months. The activists claimed Alcatraz in the name of "Indians of All Tribes," and the group offered to pay the United States $24 in beads and trade goods--modeling their offer after the terms of the purchase of the island of Manhattan. Graffiti from the period of the occupiers can still be seen.
Do you see the word "Free" written within the red and white stripes?
In 1971, federal agents removed the remaining activists from Alcatraz; the Native Americans received no land despite their occupation, but they did gain a lot of publicity from the media, and were able to raise awareness of their perspective.
After the occupation, the federal government began bulldozing buildings on the island, but this stopped when Congress created the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972, and Alcatraz Island was taken under the management of the National Park Service.
So, if you are ever in San Francisco, you should definitely go to Alcatraz. It's a fascinating place, the audio tour that is free is very good, and the garden walks (if they are open) are really beautiful.