Another highlight of our U.S. journey! We got up a bit earlier for this to be on time for our visit to the infamous Alcatraz island.
Did you know that Alcatraz comes from the Spanish word “Alcatraces”, which means pelicans? The island was formerly called La Isla de los Alcatraces, the island of the pelicans.
It was quite a sunny and warm day, a strong contrast to the place we were going to visit.
Arriving at Alcatraz
The first thing you see when you step off the ferry at Alcatraz Island is this big run-down building that used to be the residential apartments for the guards and their families. There was an elderly woman who worked there as a guide gathering all the new tourists and informing them in a very loud voice on where to go and what to see and especially recommending the audio guides that are included in the entry fees.
We went up the narrow street along the residential apartment house and through a dark but short passage which displayed an old cannon in a room next to the passage. Further up the road we reached the old guardhouse, with only the outer walls remaining, the insides were already completely in ruins.
I can’t help but feel that despite these half decayed buildings this place has an almost romantic atmosphere about it. Maybe I felt like this because we went there on a very sunny day. Maybe it would feel very different if it was a cold, grey and rainy day.
In the years from 1969 to 1971 Alcatraz Island was occupied by Native American Indians who called themselves Indians of All Tribes (or in short IOAT). They demanded the return of the island to the Native people according to the Treaty of Fort Laramie from 1868.
The occupation lasted for 19 months before it was ended forcibly. But you can still see traces of the occupation here and there on the building walls or the water tower. It is somewhat haunting because this place bears so much history.
Most of the island has been turned into beautiful gardens surrounding the cell house and the ruins. They are absolutely beautiful and were originally created by the officers, guards and their families and the prisoners. Many of the prisoners took care of the gardens. It must have been a very welcome change to the harsh life inside the prison itself.
After the prison was closed many of the plants spread wildly and uncontrolled over the entire island, destroying the structural elements like stairs or walls in the garden by their overgrowth. It was only recently that the government decided to restore the gardens.
And looking at them now, they are quite beautiful and it is nice to step outside into a blooming garden after a visit to the prison.
Entering the prison
“Break the rules and you go to prison, break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz.”
This quote will greet you at the entrance of the cell house. Not a very uplifting quote to start a visit in a prison.
At the entrance we got ourselves the audio guides, which I absolutely recommend to everyone! You get so much insight into the prison life and explanations and descriptions of the inmates. It is amazing and a little bit creepy at the same time. The audio guide is narrated by four former guards and four former inmates, which makes the tour at times even more creepy.
The first room you enter is the shower room with the laundry room right next to it. It used to have separate stalls but they have been removed, so the prisoners had to shower in a large common area.
While standing in front of the cells you could listen to the former inmates talking about being confined in one of these ‘holes’. Some of them invented games to occupy themselves in the dark and some imagined being in a living room until they could actually see the program on the television (or so they thought). Many of them started hallucinating.
The audio tour will ask you to step inside one of these holes and close your eyes and imagine having to live inside. I lasted about 3 seconds then had to leave the cell because it was too scary for me.
The next stop was the library, a big hall with only a few benches inside. Apparently the prisoners were not allowed to read newspapers because they were not supposed to know about current events. The library had a collection of about 10.000 to 15.000 books but they were all heavily censored. Not only were the prisoners not allowed to know about current events, but sex, crime and violence in books in general were prohibited.
Many of the prisoners turned to philosophy. According to one of the audio guides (I think it was a guard narrating then), the prisoners read more than an average adult in those days and they preferred philosophers like Kant or Hegel and other authors like Alexander Dumas (not so very far-fetched, regarding the story of The Count of Monte Cristo and his escape from a prison on an island similar to Alcatraz).
Battle of Alcatraz
The next station on the audio guide tour was the gun gallery in one of the cell passages. This time the guards as well as the former inmates told us about the attempted escape by inmate Bernard Coy and other fellow inmates.
Coy managed to get into the gun gallery by using a self-made device to widen the bars of the gun gallery, squeezing himself through the bars (to achieve this he had lost a lot of weight before) and overpowered the guard here. Then he dropped weapons to his fellow inmates and accomplices as well as keys to open the cells. Some of the prisoners however chose to return to their cells as they did not want to have anything to do with the escape attempt.
The others locked nine guards in two cells and tried to find a way out of the prison. When they failed to do this, they returned to the cell house and decided to shoot the guards so there wouldn’t be any witnesses. One of the prisoners stood in front of those two cells and shot them in cold blood. You could still see the bullet holes in the walls. But one guard survived and wrote down all the names of the prisoners who tried to escape.
Other guards tried to get into the cell house but were shot down. To get the situation under control the Marines (who were called to help) dropped grenades into the cell house. After constantly shooting at the corridor of the cell house they finally managed to get inside and capture the remaining prisoners who tried to escape.
This part of the audio tour was definitely the liveliest. Standing in these corridors and seeing the traces of the bullet holes and the grenade impacts it enabled me to relive these moments in my imagination. Somehow horrible but fascinating at the same time.
Next we stepped into the warden’s office, which presented a nice change of atmosphere for me. The office was well kept and looked as if it could be used any time.
Stepping outside into the sunshine somehow relieved me of the heavy and tense atmosphere inside the cell house. It is weird, because after all it hasn’t been a prison in a long time but listening to those stories makes one’s heart heavy.
Also the view from the office was quite stunning!
Escape from Alcatraz
After visiting the warden’s office and warming up in the sunshine the tour lead me inside again, this time the tour led us to another cell block showing a couple of cells completely furnished and this time even with dolls inside the beds.
The story this time was about another escape attempt by four people, two of them the Anglin brothers. This attempt has been described as the most intricate and arduous escape.
Behind the prisoner’s cell there was a narrow corridor which was used for the power cables and water pipes I think. The walls were damaged by the moisture and the prisoners managed to chisel away bits of the wall around an air vent using metal spoons. They weren’t found out because they only worked on the walls during music hour (an hour where music was allowed to be played in the cell house).
Eventually the hole in the wall was big enough for the men to squeeze through and once in the corridor they climbed up through an air vent, built a raft made of raincoats (if I remember correctly) and then left the island. They even made dummies and placed them in their beds so the guards would think they were asleep.
They are also the only escapees who are thought to have successfully escaped the rock. Although in official statements it was declared that they must have drowned in the sea due to the rough weather, it was said that they were seen in South America. Also, apparently there have been unofficial reports stating that a raft was discovered on Angel Island (a neighboring island) with footprints leading away and a car theft reported there that night.
So up until now it still remains unclear whether or not the escapees have survived. But it was definitely a clever trick!
The end of the tour
The tour ended in the dining hall of the prison, a wide space with benches and tables and at the end of the hall the big kitchen with even a board displaying the available food for the prisoners. Not much apparently.
The kitchen itself was behind bars again, so the prisoners were not able to storm inside and take knifes or arm themselves otherwise. The big kitchen knives were were hung on the wall to the left, with their shapes painted on the wall itself. This was done, so a missing knife would instantly attract attention.