Alcatraz (the Rock)

“You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention.  Anything else you get is a privilege.”  Alcatraz Prison rules and regulations


Below would be a nice place to enjoy a sunny SF day…but for the wind and fog, but you do get a view towards Sausalito and the GGB.

This rock in the middle of SF harbour is a stark reminder that this country had some bad bad people.  this place harboured all sorts of murderers, rapists and robbers, all of whom were classified as troublemakers, with repeated escapes or malcontents.  Only a few inmates were considered notorious.  Al Capone had a short stay in this fine establishment and the Birdman of Alcatraz is well serialised.  This was, undeniably, a maximum security facility. The island was also home to the staff and their families.

Alcatraz is a steep sided and rocky island, whose first inhabitants were pelicans, hence the Spanish translation, Alcatraz.  After the island was brought from the Mexicans by the US, it became a military fort.  It also was the site for the first lighthouse erected on the Pacific coast in the late 1850s.  In the early 1900s, it became a military prison and in 1934, a federal prison.

Alcatraz hosted round 1500 and during its time as a federal prison, there were 14 attempted escapes, with the last taking place in 1962.  This was immortalised in the Clint Eastwood movie, Escape from Alcatraz.  There were 3 inmates who escaped that night, their bodies were never found – it is surmised that these men drowned.  The currents and water temperature are such that any attempt to swim the nearly 2kms to shore was a death sentence in itself. 

The Rock loomed ominously as we were ‘transported’ to the island for our tour.  We are offloaded at the pier and given a quick induction.  Afterwards, we sauntered our way towards the cell block, walking past the military dorm, water tower, morgue and stopping to view the prison workshops, at the end of the island, overlooking the harbour towards the GGB.

Alcatraz was never at capacity and prisoners spent between 16 and 23 hours in their cells, alone, in basic quarters, equipped with only a toilet and bed.  The cells were around 1.5 by 3 metres.  The average stay on Alcatraz was around 8 years.  Also, no executions took place on this island.

The below part of the prison was considered the Hilton of Alcatraz due to the amount of natural light that came into the prison from the windows on the left….in comparison with the middle blocks (exposure control can make anything look bright!!)…


The prison was austere – prison grey and green concrete and steel.  But their dining hall did have some nice views from the barred windows, to compensate for its cold ambience…

As you could imagine, meals and exercise became the highlight of the prisoner’s day.  Many films have been centred in the exercise yard.  However, how anybody could enjoy this windswept and god-forsaken cold area is beyond me…but then the alternative is worse. 

The exercise yard was extremely windy, and cold, as the wind came in from the pacific and across the cold water…and this is summer!  But it was not from the biting wind that I quickly went back into the cell block, the smell of bird-poo was quite over-powering…would have liked to have had the ‘Clint Eastwood’ moment on the concrete steps.

The prison officers and the warden had some magnificent views over the harbour.

A significant number of buildings are now in disrepair (but continue to make great movie locations).

All in all, quite a fascinating insight into what can only be described as a no-nonsense establishment.

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