Taking the Alcatraz San Francisco tour won’t really land you in prison. You will, however, enter the mammoth building through its “impressive gate system.” The feeling of confinement is almost overwhelming. “Escape from Alcatraz” was said to be impossible. Even so, its history is rife with fabulous escape attempts by daring prisoners. Average success was something like 0 for 14 attempts. Numbers 4-14 had to have been a little slow in the brains department. It’s role as a prison began somewhere in the 1850’s, as a military prison. Stands to reason that as a military installation it must have been designed as a secure building.
It actually began as a military fortress, protecting the Bay to the tune of 100 cannon bristling on sea sides. Can you remember San Francisco ever being threatened by a 19th century invasion from the sea?
INHABITANTS ANYTHING BUT MELLOW
There were some really bad guys incarcerated there. Al Capone, Robert “Birdman” Stroud and George, “Machine Gun,” Kelly were some of the most notorious. Hollywood loved making dramatic movies about them. The latest Alcatraz movie involved a rogue military unit, seeking reparations for families of slain soldiers. They threatened San Francisco with a bomb, delivered from one of the prisons’ towers, Sean Connery, “ex-CIA guy,” went in to take care of business. Alcatraz was a perfect backdrop for the story.
It used to be a big scary place. Crumbling, damp concrete, chipped tile, clanking steel doors and ghosts echoing down the long corridors, were all left to decay until recent years. Since 1963 the facility has undergone several repair projects to be clean and presentable for an Alcatraz tour.
WHY SO POPULAR AS A PRISON?
It does have its reputation as one of the harshest prisons in the country. Even hard-boiled criminals cringed at the thought of going there and Robert “Birdman” Stroud was deprived of the birds he was so attached to and allowed to keep at Leavenworth. Wonder if he still missed them after spending 17 years on Alcatraz.
While it operated 1,576 criminals passed through its portals to spend long dreary years in each other’s company. No t.v., maybe a little work, and the daily stint in the exercise yard. It bears very little resemblance to today’s modern prisons. There were no bright visiting rooms where families came to have pleasant conversations with incarcerated relatives.
Alcatraz Tours now pass through its portals
As a tourist destination it has enjoyed an increasing measure of success while it gains in age. The gruesome reputation it held for so long is a draw for visitors who are interested in learning its history, architecture, and the see views from its towers. Then, looking down into the Bay’s churning waters, imagining the jump into the Bay might even become a brave, perhaps even a romantic act.
It is disturbing, however, to learn how costly one prison break could be. In May of 1946, 6 prisoners managed to arm themselves. In the two-day battle that followed, they took the lives of two guards and injured eighteen others. Three of the prisoners were killed and the other three were captured by Marines. They stood trial and were executed for their crimes.
Fascinating and admirable
At present, Alcatraz has been building a different kind of reputation. In 1980 the first Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon was established as an annual event. It showed that, with proper conditioning and appropriate gear, trained athletes can accomplish the 1.5 mile swim from its rock-bound shores.
A Taste of San Francisco and Beyond invites you to book the Alcatraz San Francisco tour to take a brief ferry ride to the island prison. There you will disembark for a 45-minute, self-guided audio tour of the formidable main building. With interviews of former inmates and correctional officers you’ll learn how it came to be known as “The Rock,” claiming to be one of the largest prisons in the world.