Exploring “The Rock” Prison with the Alcatraz Cellhouse Tour

26 April, 2013

Surrounded by strong currents and fortified by steel and concrete, the Alcatraz federal prison was meant to be the highest-security prison in America, a place no one could escape from. The island on which it rests shuns even plant life. Alcatraz is essentially a rock surrounded by water — hence its forbidding nickname “The Rock“.

Alcatraz was designed to serve as America’s first maximum-security, minimum-privilege penitentiary, what is today referred to as a “super max” institution. From 1934 to 1963, Alcatraz housed some of America’s most notorious offenders, escape artists, gang leaders and general trouble makers. They were held under the most secure and regimented conditions, in the virtually escape-proof environment on a rocky island in the middle of San Francisco Bay.

Overview of Island The Rock Cellhouse Tour Alcatraz Overview Map San Francisco California Prison United States of America

Alcatraz was sometimes called the “prison within the prison system”, since the only inmates sent there were transferred from other federal prisons. Courts could not sentence anyone to Alcatraz. Instead, the Rock was where the authorities sent its most troublesome prisoners until it was decided they could be safely returned to a lower-security institution. Their average stay was five years.

One of the many myths about Alcatraz is that it was impossible to survive a swim from the island to the mainland because of sharks. In fact, there are no “man-eating” sharks in San Francisco Bay, only small bottom-feeding sharks. The main obstacles were the cold temperature (averaging 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit), the strong currents, and the distance to shore (at least 1-1/4 miles).

Today the Alcatraz penitentiary is a museum and one of San Francisco’s major tourist attractions, attracting some 1.5 million visitors annually.

Alcatraz Overview Map San Francisco California Prison United States of America

To get to Alcatraz, you will need to reserve your tickets (US$30) with http://www.alcatrazcruises.com – the official website for tours to Alcatraz island.  Tickets can sell out a few days in advance so you must reserve and pay for your tickets online early if you have a tight itinerary in San Francisco.  If you intend to walk in and purchase the tickets on the spot, you will most likely have no chance of getting on the island.

Customers purchasing and printing Alcatraz tickets on the web should arrive at Pier 33, Alcatraz Landing, with their photo ID. Photo ID’s are not necessary for every person in the party, but are required for the person who purchased the tickets.  For first-timers to San Francisco, it is easy to get confused with the Pier numberings – you might be familiar with Pier 39 Fisherman’s Wharf but note that Pier 33 is nowhere near Pier 39.  Familiarise yourself with how to get to Pier 33 and how long you need to get there because if you missed the timing you reserved, you will miss your tour.

Do note the return boat schedule so you don’t miss the last boat home and end up staying the night in the eerie Alcatraz cellhouse (it is known as one of the most haunted places in the States).  Do arrive a few minutes before the return timing as there will likely be a long queue for the boat back to mainland.

Alcatraz The Rock Cruise National Park Service San Francisco

We just had to stalk this uncle dressed in his “prison stripes” – it looked as if he is being transported to Alcatraz – makes for a fun picture 🙂

Alcatraz Overview Map San Francisco California Prison United States of America Escape from Prison Prisoner

Most people know that Alcatraz was once a world-famous federal penitentiary, but the island’s history before and after the penitentiary era is less well known. For example, few realize that it was also the site of the first American lighthouse on the West Coast and that the island served as a huge harbor defense fort during the Civil War. After the fort became obsolete, the U.S. Army turned the island into a grim military prison. Following the closing of the Alcatraz penitentiary, Alcatraz became the site of a American Indian protest movement. On 9 November 1969, a group of Native Americans landed on the island and claimed it in the name of the “Indians of all Tribes”. This occupation lasted almost 19 months. You will still be able to see remnants of the occupation on the island e.g. the “Indians Welcome” sign you see when you first arrive on Alcatraz.

Indian Native American Occupation Signage Signboard Overview of Island The Rock Cellhouse Tour Alcatraz Overview Map San Francisco California Prison United States of America

After you disembark from the boat, you will need to walk for about 10 minutes to reach the cellhouse where you will be provided with an audio guide.  Do note that the roads and walkways on Alcatraz are steep. The distance from the dock to the cell house is approximately 0.4km and the elevation change is 40 meters, the equivalent of walking up a 13 story building. The roads and walkways are wide with several places to stop along the way to rest and take in the breathtaking views.

With the Alcatraz Cruises tour, you are provided with a 45-minute audio presentation “Doing Time: The Alcatraz Cellhouse Tour” featuring interesting stories told by actual correctional officers and prisoners who lived and worked on the Island.  We were also given an orientation video by Discovery Channel.  Ranger and docent tours are also available to show visitors around Alcatraz – not just the cellhouse but also its historic gardens and abundant wildlife (certain timing only).  These are included as part of your ticket on the Alcatraz Cruises.  The 45-minute audio guide will guide you around every part of the cellhouse and provide vivid descriptions of what prison life was like.

Self-guided Audio Tour 45-minute Cellhouse Tour Alcatraz Overview Map San Francisco California Prison United States of America

The three-story Alcatraz cellhouse included the main four blocks of the jail, A-Block, B-Block, C-Block, and D-Block, the warden’s office, visitation room, the library, and the barber shop.The dining hall and kitchen lay off the main building in an extended part where both prisoners and staff would eat three meals a day together. Corridors of the prison were named after major American streets such as Broadway and Michigan Avenue.

Interesting Prison Aisle Names Broadway Michigan Avenue Cellhouse Tour Alcatraz San Francisco California Prison United States of America

The prison cells, purposefully designed so that none adjoined an outside wall, typically measured 9 feet (2.7 m) by 5 feet (1.5 m) and 7 feet (2.1 m) high. The cells were primitive with a bed, a desk and a washbasin and toilet on the back wall and few furnishings except a blanket. An air vent measuring 6 inches (150 mm) by 9 inches (230 mm), covered by a metal grill, lay at the back of the cells which led into the utility corridors.

Cellhouse Tour Alcatraz San Francisco California Prison United States of America Prison Cell What it Looks Like Life of a Cellmate

At Alcatraz, a prisoner had four rights: food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. Everything else was a privilege that had to be earned. Some privileges a prisoner could earn included working, corresponding with and having visits from family members, access to the prison library, and recreational activities such as painting and music. The following pictures depict what a typical cell would look like after an inmate had customised it – although the checkers board do look quite out of place (the cells are single occupancy-based so the inmate would have to play checkers with himself).

Customised Cell Prison Life Daily Cellhouse Tour Alcatraz San Francisco California Prison United States of America

D-Block gained notoriety as a “Treatment block” for some of the worst inmates, with varying degrees of punishment, including Isolation, Solitary and Strip. Prisoners usually spent anything from 3 to 19 days in Solitary. Prisoners held here would be given their meals in their cells and not permitted to work and only shower twice a week.

Cells 9–14 were known as “The Hole”, the worst cells for confinement as a punishment for inmates who stepped out of line, located at the end of D-Block. The cells were devoid of light and colder than the rest of the prison, and prisoners sent here were regularly stripped, beaten, and tortured and often starved, forced to sleep on the cold concrete floor wearing nothing but light underwear.

Cellhouse Tour Alcatraz San Francisco California Prison United States of America Isolation Cells

One of the privileges that can be taken away if an inmate misbehaves – visitation rights.  There are strict rules on visitation too – just read the rules and regulations in the picture below.

Cellhouse Tour Alcatraz San Francisco California Prison United States of America Visitation Area

At the end of each 20 minute meal in the dining hall, the forks, spoons and knives were laid out on the table and carefully counted to ensure that nothing had been taken as a potential weapon.  Of course, inmates on kitchen duty would have to surrender and display their cooking utensils e.g. chopper, knifes (anything that could be used as a weapon) on the board shown in the picture below so that these utensils can be accounted easily at a glance.

Kitchen Duty Safety Cellhouse Tour Alcatraz San Francisco California Prison United States of America

Escape Attempts from Alcatraz

Over the 29 years (1934-1963) that the Federal prison operated Alcatraz, 36 men (including two who tried to escape twice) were involved in 14 separate escape attempts. Of these, 23 were caught, 6 were shot and killed during their escape, and 2 drowned. Five convicts disappeared and were never seen again, but the overwhelming odds are that they drowned and that their bodies were never recovered.  Officially, no one ever succeeded in escaping from Alcatraz, although to this day the five prisoners were listed as “missing and presumed drowned”.

There are some dramatic Alcatraz escape attempts – one of which is made famous by Clint Eastwood in the movie Escape from Alcatraz.  On June 11, 1962, Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin vanished from their cells and were never seen again.  An investigation revealed an intricate escape plot that involved homemade drills to enlarge vent holes, false wall segments, and realistic dummy heads (complete with human hair) placed in the beds so the inmates would not be missed during nighttime counts (see picture below on how realistic they had made the dummy heads).

The three men exited through vent holes located in the rear wall of their cell – they had enlarged the vent holes and made false vent/wall segments to conceal their work. It is believed they left from the northeast side of the island near the powerhouse/quartermaster building. They used prison-issued raincoats to make crude life vests and a pontoon-type raft to assist in their swim. A cellhouse search turned up the drills, heads, wall segments, and other tools, while the water search found two life vests (one in the bay, the other outside the Golden Gate), oars, and letters and photographs belonging to the Anglins that had been carefully wrapped to be watertight. But no sign of the men was found. Several weeks later, a man’s body dressed in blue clothing similar to the prison uniform was found a short distance up the coast from San Francisco, but the body was too badly deteriorated to be identified. Morris and the Anglins are officially listed as missing and presumed drowned.

Escape from Alcatraz Cellhouse Tour Alcatraz San Francisco California Prison United States of America

Alcatraz prison closed on March 21, 1963 after 29 years of operation because the institution was too expensive to continue operating. Alcatraz was nearly three times more expensive to operate than any other Federal prison. The major expense was caused by the physical isolation of the island – the exact reason islands have been used as prisons throughout history. This isolation meant that everything (food, supplies, water, fuel) had to be brought to Alcatraz by boat. The Federal Government found that it was more cost-effective to build a new institution than to keep Alcatraz open.

Alcatraz Surroundings Flowers Cellhouse Tour Alcatraz San Francisco California Prison United States of America

Convicts weren’t the only ones living on the island. The guards and their families lived there too. The children took a boat off the island to attend school every day. In fact, nothing was produced or grown on the island, so a boat ride was required for every shopping trip. The island did have a movie theater and other recreational opportunities. But life was also a bit strange. Children weren’t allowed to have toy guns, because a prisoner could get a hold of one and use it to bluff a guard and escape.

Prison Guard Quarters Cellhouse Tour Alcatraz San Francisco California Prison United States of America

For flights to the States, you can consider CheapTickets.sg multi-stop trip functionality which effectively serve as a one-stop for us in planning our flights from Singapore to Los Angeles and internal flights to Las Vegas and finally from San Francisco back to Singapore.  Please click on link for our USA West Coast trip itinerary.

If you are intending to get a San Francisco CityPASS, you can purchase San Francisco CityPASS PLUS Alcatraz directly from Alcatraz Cruises. This option allows you to add an Alcatraz Island Tour to your San Francisco CityPASS instead of the Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise ticket usually included with San Francisco CityPASS.  For more info, check out: http://www.citypass.com/san-francisco/alcatraz

Zhiqiang & Tingyi

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