Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Entrapped on 'The Rock' - Walking thru the Past

A mile and a half from the piers of San Francisco, lies Alcatraz Island.  Can you imagine carrying out your daily life that close to notorious criminals such as Al Capone or "Machine Gun" Kelly?  No thank you!!  But for citizens of San Francisco from 1934 - 1963, that was a reality.

Tours for Alcatraz sell out fast - over a million people from around the world visit every year.  We had to book ours a couple of days ahead of time.  From 9 a.m. until 4 p.m., a ferry makes the 15 minute trip out to The Rock every half an hour.  Once there, you can stay as long as you like, as long as you make the final return ferry.  There are also 2 night tour ferries available. (Again - no thank you!!)

During the 29 years the island served as a federal prison, Alcatraz housed 1,576 inmates, employed 90 correctional officers, and was overseen by 4 wardens.

TIP #6: Don't forget those walking shoes when heading out to Alcatraz!

You may notice in the picture on the right, the building reads "Indians Welcome".  After the prisoners were moved off the island in 1963, the property was essentially abandoned.  In November 1969, Mohawk Indian, Richard Oakes, initiated a 19 month occupation of the island.  The Native American group was known as the Indians of All Tribes, as it was composed of roughly 100 individuals from many tribes.

They organized to fight the United States government for the deed to the island, with the intent to build an Indian university, a cultural center and a museum.  The government, on the other hand, insisted they leave the island.  During this time, there were periods of uprising and vandalism, including the destruction of the Warden's home, due to fire.

The occupation continued until June 1971, when the government finally went in and removed the remaining Native Americans.  In 1973, the island was officially opened to the public as a national park.

Once you walk up to the cellhouse, you are given a set of headphones and audio device for a guided tour of the prison.  I've always thought "audio tours" were kind of cheesy - but this one was actually really cool.  It was full of information and history about the layout of the prison, prison life and the prisoners themselves.

The "cutoff" is a wide walkway that cut through B & C blocks, allowing guards to easily access the entire prison.  On each end of the four rows of cell blocks was a gun gallery, where the guards would keep watch.  The walkway dividing B&C blocks was known as Broadway, while the walkway below the west gun gallery - between the cell blocks and dining hall - was called Time Square.  Below is a map of the layout of the main level of the cellhouse.


For those who have seen the movie Chicago, this prison was no cell block tango.  While many prisoners asked to be sent to Alcatraz, due to there being only one prisoner to a cell, it was fairly primitive.  Inmates were allowed 4 basics: food, shelter, clothing and health care.  Anything more than that had to be earned.

For those who couldn't handle the simple request of normal behavior, it was off to the D Block.  These isolation chambers were even more stripped down than the normal cells, and often were completely dark.  Ironically, they were some of the only cells offered direct sunlight, as they were on the outer edge of the cell house.

Various movies have made Alcatraz famous over the years - mostly related to escape attempts.  During its time as a federal penitentiary, Alcatraz witnessed 14 escape attempts.  However, officially nobody ever successfully escaped.  Of the 36 that attempted escape, 23 were caught, 6 were shot and killed, 2 drowned and 5 are listed as missing and presumed drowned.

There was one event in particular that they mentioned in the audio tour - over the course of about 48 hours, several of the inmates battled groups of guards who attempted to squelch their efforts to escape.  Prisoner Bernard Coy had noticed that the gun gallery was suseptible to breach, by using a bar spreader like the one pictured above.  Him and fellow inmate Marvin Hubbard were able to overtake the on-call guard, and gain access to the gun gallery, as well as the guard's set of keys.  However, when they tried to unlock the door to the recreation yard - they found that the needed key was missing.  As time passed, more guards realized there was a problem and the prison was set on alert.
This is the cell where some of the guards were held & shot.
Over the next 2 days, many shots were fired, and as many as 9 guards were taken hostage by the prisoners, locked into the cells.  Many of them were shot, one even died of his injuries.  Eventually the Marines were called in and the three prisoners who refused to surrender were later found shot to death.  The 2 other prisoners who actively participated in the escape attempt were later tried and sentenced to death in the gas chamber of another California prison.

The above photo shows the divets that can still be seen in the floor from the gunshots.

One of the things that is still kind of shocking to me about the history of Alcatraz, is that it wasn't just prisoners who lived there.  The warden lived on the island with his family, as did many of the officers and guards.  Just outside the maximum security prison lived women and young children.  The apartments that once housed the families are no longer on the island, however the remains of the warden's home still stand.  As I previously mentioned, the home itself was destroyed during the island's occupation by the Native Americans.

The final stop of the audio tour was the dining hall - which was attached to the main cell block by Times Square.  Prisoners received three 20 minute meals a day in the dining hall, which held more than 250 people at a time.  Although it was equipped with tear-gas canisters for security purposes, they were never actually deployed.  On the far end of the dining hall is the kitchen, where the breakfast menu is still posted:

TIP #7: Eat before you head out to the island - this kitchen is closed!

Okay . . . I promise I am almost done.  This post has literally taken me three days to write and I am sooooo ready to be done with it - so I'm sure you are too!  For the sake of time, I am just going to dump the last of the photos from Alcatraz.....

Recreation Yard


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  1. i love deserted places, they make for great photos! it's hard to imagine there were actually people there, must've been quite the experience to visit it!

  2. This is fascinating! I've seen the island from the water, but never been out there. There's something strangely beautiful about decaying buildings.

  3. Thanks for sharing all this! My son was in San Fran and visited here in January...but he doesn't take photos - so this was wonderful!!

  4. What an interesting post and fabulous accompanying photos. I am going to get there one day!!!!

  5. I had to laugh when I saw Adrienne's comment because of what I wanted to tell you. My husband and son were in San Fransisco on a mission trip last summer and got to spend a day here. They were so impressed by it, but it was like pulling teeth to get them to convey why. Of course, no photos were taken! So, this helped me make sense of what information I was able to pry from them!

  6. Excellent photos of a place where most will never see.


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