Everyone who’s visited San Francisco knows that a visit to Alcatraz Island is a must-do. When I found out I would be visiting the city for a conference last year, Kyle decided he wanted to fly out after I finished with work, mainly so he could see the famed prison. We made all the arrangements, and planned lots of activities for an extended weekend in San Fran. Then the government shut down.
It was October 2013, and there had been a lot of talk in the news about the 80,000 government workers who were furloughed, and some 1.3 million more who had to report to work without knowing when they would next be paid. My little Upstate New York town had been relatively unscathed by the happenings in Washington, but spending a week in San Francisco opened my eyes to the effect the shutdown had on other parts of the country—more specifically, the tourism industry.
Probably very few visitors to the city realize how many attractions are on National Park land, all of which across the country was closed during the government shutdown—including Alcatraz. Even the Cliff House, a fantastic restaurant where we dined one night, was closed for more than a week and had to petition the government for permission to re-open, since it sits on Golden Gate National Park land.
There was also an unfortunate circumstance where I wanted to get a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge from a stop along the Big Bus route, but it was closed due to the shutdown. Someone told us we could walk down to the same spot, which we ended up doing, but then had to hike 5 miles uphill to Sausalito. Ugh. It was much easier to get to the same vantage point during my recent visit!
So, at long last, I was able to visit the hauntingly beautiful prison set in solitude, 1.5 miles out in the frigid, supposedly shark-infested waters of San Francisco Bay. An added bonus was that it was Fleet Week in San Francisco, and I got to watch the Blue Angels dart in perfect synchronization back and forth across the sky as the ferry boat glided closer to the island. I kept sending pictures to Kyle who was some 2,000 miles away this year – already jealous he wasn’t getting to see Alcatraz, but now even more upset he was missing the air show.
First, I walked the seasonal Agave Trail to get a beautiful view of San Francisco, and to watch the planes before the fog rolled in. Then I made my way to the prison, set high on a hill. I started the self-guided audio tour, and found myself being thankful that the night tour that I had wanted to go on was sold out. That might have been a bit much for me to handle on my own! The tour is narrated by former correctional officers from Alcatraz—and prisoners who once served time on the rock. A unique, but eerie perspective, knowing these hardened criminals were one locked away in the cells you’re peering into.
There were about 260 prisoners on Alcatraz at any given time, and 1,576 inmate numbers were issued – but some people served multiple sentences. You’d think if you’d spent time in the harshest prison in America, you would have learned your lesson the first time! The island functioned as a penitentiary for 29 years (1934-1963), and during that time there were 14 escape attempts. Throughout the tour, you’ll hear about the most famous attempt in June 1962, the subject of the movie Escape from Alcatraz. Over the course of a year, three men had assembled a raft out of raincoats and cement, dug holes in their cell walls with spoons, and fashioned dummy heads to leave in their beds. They scurried up the ventilation system onto the roof, managed to get over the prison fence, inflated the raft on the shore of the island, and disappeared into the night. Parts of the raft were found, but the men were neither seen nor heard from again.
The recorded tour takes about 45 minutes, and leads you through various parts of the jail, including the cafeteria, library, and administration wing. You’ll see lots of cells and even get to go in a few. Seeing some of the personal belongings of the inmates was interesting—there was one guy who taught people to paint and another, to crochet.
D-Block was where the worst criminals—the likes of Al Capone—were “segregated.” The 42 cells, ironically are slightly bigger than the rest, and positioned directly across from a high window wall, with views of the San Francisco skyline. If you were lucky enough to get out of your cell to catch a glimpse, it was a harsh reminder of the world you weren’t allowed to be a part of—existing a mere 1.5 miles away from your world of steel bars and concrete.
It was an interesting experience, visiting this former jail by myself. The air was heavy; laden with the sadness and tragedy that took place here. It’s one of those places that makes you think, “If only walls could talk.” Imagine the stories they would have to tell!