Alcatraz!

alcatraz

Alcatraz. “The Rock.” One of the world’s most famous prisons, located in the middle of the choppy but beautiful waters of the San Francisco Bay, California, was home to some of the most infamous prisoners in US history from 1934 until it closed in 1963. We visited the island last week and were transported back in time by the imposing sights of the prison itself as well as the voices and sounds presented in the impeccably crafted audio tour. Before I continue with our experience, here is some information on The Rock’s most famous prisoners as well as The Great Escape (click on the links below for more information).

Famous Inmates: The most infamous inmates on The Rock included Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert Stroud (The Birdman of Alcatraz), just to name a few.

Al Capone, otherwise known as Scarface, was of course the famous Italian-American gangster who rose to notoriety in the Prohibition era in Chicago. He was a violent bootlegger with a profitable relationship with Chicago’s mayor, which gave him protection from the law. Until 7 rival gang members were killed in public during the 1929 Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, at which point he became “Public Enemy No. 1.”

Capone was eventually captured, tried, and sent to Atlanta US Penitentiary at the age of 32 in 1933. He suffered from syphilis and cocaine withdrawal. After rumors of special treatment there, he was subsequently sent to Alcatraz, where he would serve 4 1/2 years.

George “Machine Gun” Kelly. This is the guy I think of when the picture of a Prohibition era gangster, tommy gun in hand, comes to mind. At the age of 19, Kelly was married with 2 children, but found himself unable to support his family on his meager taxi cab driver wages. He split from his wife and started down the path to his bootlegging career. By 1927 he’d already begun to earn a reputation as a tough underground gangster, but it was Kathryn Thorne, who he met and then married in 1930, who is believed to be the true mastermind behind his reputation.

It was Thorne who gave Kelly his signature tommy gun, and she masterfully marketed her husband by passing out the spent cartridges and calling her husband “Machine Gun” at every opportunity. His crime sprees, while small time before Thorne entered the picture, soon rocketed him to the status of “Public Enemy No. 1.”

Eventually Kelly was caught and imprisoned in Leavenworth, but he bragged that he would escape and break his wife out of prison as well. These boasts were taken seriously, and led to his transfer to Alcatraz in 1934, where he remained until 1951.

 

Robert Stroud, The Birdman of Alcatraz. In 1909, Stroud murdered a bartender who didn’t pay for the services of one of Stroud’s prostitutes, then raided his wallet to pay the girl and take his own cut. After being tried and convicted, he was known as a violent and unruly prisoner, and he eventually stabbed a prison guard to death in front of over a thousand other prisoners in the mess hall. After this incident, he was kept in solitary confinement.

While at Leavenworth, he developed an interest in canaries, and he was allowed to research them during his 30 years at the prison. In 1942, he was transferred to Alcatraz, where he spent the next 17 years.

 

The Great Escape: The worst of the worst were sent to Alcatraz because it was believed to be impossible to escape from The Rock. Even if a prisoner could get out of a locked cell and escape the prison walls, how would anyone be able to swim the frigid, rough waters and manage the swift currents of the San Francisco Bay? Still, several escape attempts were made in the history of Alcatraz.

Frank Lee Morris masterminded Alcatraz’s most famous escape alongside accomplices Allen West and brothers John and Clarence Anglin. The complex plan included lifelike dummies made from concrete blocks, paint from prison art kits, and even human hair from the barbershop. When prison guards passed by to do head counts after lights out, these dummies were good enough to fool them into thinking the prisoners were still in their cells. Additionally, over 50 raincoats were used to fashion life preservers and a life raft for the escapees.

On June 11, 1962, after lights out, Morris placed the dummies on the bunks, and along with the Anglin brothers, climbed 30 feet of plumbing to the roof, made the way precariously over 100 feet of rooftop, then climbed down 50 feet of piping to the ground. West was left behind. Morris and the Anglin brothers were never seen again.

 

Our Visit

Alcatraz is a national park now, and we visited on July 7th, 2017.  Our family went with my brother and his wife and children. I loved it. The kids loved it. We all loved it. All four of the little ones were all in for the entire event. Here’s a shot of us during the audio tour:

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We got up that morning, ate a light breakfast, and then we drove a mile to the ferry dock. The ferry ride was about 25 minutes to San Francisco, and this is how my brother commutes daily. He rides his bike the mile to the ferry, rides the boat over the gorgeous bay, and then bikes the last 5 miles to work. The ferry ride to San Francisco was a big event for my kids. They loved it. And really, all of us seemed to enjoy it. Here are the kids on the ferry:

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To get to Alcatraz from San Francisco, you have to take another ferry. Tickets for this must be purchased well in advance. The day we went, people were trying to buy tickets for that day only to be told that the next available excursion was not until August 19th. Yikes. Our tickets were for the 12:30 ferry, and at noon we were in line and prepared to board.
Although the ferry ride over to the prison was really pretty, the prison itself was wickedly imposing, from a distance and particularly so close up. Such a stark contrast to the beauty of both the bay and the city. And they pointed this out a couple of times on the audio tour – that these prisoners were forced to see all that is good in life, just out of their reach, every day. Here is a shot of the bay and the city beyond from Alcatraz.
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We landed on The Rock, were greeted by an employee of the park who offered us some general instructions, and then set out on foot for our tour. We started with a 17 minute video on the history of the place, after which all 8 of us picked up the audio tour equipment, which the workers synchronized for us, and that was wonderful. This allowed us to hear the tour at the same pace, even though we all had individual head phones. The way it’s organized is fantastic too. Everyone on the island doesn’t start the tour in the same place. When we began the audio tour, other groups went right or straight, so we weren’t a giant mob of krill working our way around together. Very well done.
The cells themselves were all individual. Just a bed and a small table and a toilet. We also saw the D block cells – solitary confinement. I walked into one of those cells and walked right back out. I can’t imagine being in a cell like that, in the pitch dark, 24 hours a day. We also saw the mess hall, the guard’s station, and each of the different cell blocks.
When the tour took us outside, we saw incredible views of the bay from up on high, and we saw the ruins of the warden’s home. That place, though it’s just a shell now, looked pretty amazing. Brick, with fireplaces, and just unbelievable views of the bay and city. I was surprised to learn that the prison workers lived on the island with their families. It was a whole little community, and the wives that were interviewed as part of the audio tour said raising their families on the island was amazing. I think I’d be a little freaked out by the level of scary humans in such close proximity to my kids. But the place is remarkably beautiful. The kids are just next to the ruins of the Warden’s house here:
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In all of Alcatraz, the thing that Mason wanted to see most was the concrete heads (mentioned above in my description of The Great Escape). Just to quickly reiterate, a few of the prisoners, for an escape attempt, used concrete and carved it out to look like human heads, so that when the guards came by at night to do a head count, they saw these dummies in the cells and thought they were the actual prisoners.
And, last but not least, we met an actual prisoner from Alcatraz! William Baker. He’s 83, and was finally released from prison at the age of 80. He wrote a book, and he was there signing books. We bought a copy and got it signed, along with a picture alongside Damian and Mason. Here’s a little snippet of what Baker said about his 3 years in Alcatraz. “A human being can adjust to just about anything. We found happiness comes in small packages. To a junkyard dog, a bone is pure heaven. The food was alright and once we got a job, we could get out of our cell during the day and go to work…I don’t regret the experience because I met some really great people there. People who I thought were great anyway. They just liked to rob banks.”
Here’s a picture of Damian and Mason along with actual Alcatraz prisoner William Baker:
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Overall, an excellent experience, and another item to cross of of my bucket list! Photographs courtesy of my talented sister in law, Jen Huff, from Jen Huff Photography.

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