May 27, 2017

When We "Did Time" On Alcatraz

The day after relaxing in Napa Valley (see HERE), we visited Alcatraz Island. We bought tickets through Alcatraz Cruises several weeks prior to our trip since we'd heard they sell out quick. We boarded the boat from the Embarcadero pier and within fifteen minutes, we crossed the less-than-two miles of water that used to separate the free and the locked up.
Previously an army prison in the early 1900s, Alcatraz Island was deemed the perfect spot in 1934 for a new model of maximum high-security federal prison that would need to be isolated as much as possible from the free world.  The concentrated model was a new type of prison model that would basically hold the hardest-to-manage prisoners from other U.S. prisons. Wardens were all-too-pleased to get rid of their most troublesome prisoners and sent them to Alcatraz. San Francisco residents' worries were calmed by the government's assurance that Alcatraz would be impossible to escape due to the high-security of the prison, the freezing cold water and strong current of the San Francisco Bay.

During its 29 years as a federal penitentiary, 36 inmates made 14 escape attempts. The most notorious  failed escape was known as Battle of Alcatraz and ended up with two guards and three inmates dead. Mystery surrounds the last attempt, arguably the only successful (and most intricately planned) escape. No record of the three inmates was found after their escape, so we'll never know if their bodies are at the bottom of the bay or if they truly survived the escape and disappeared somehow. 

Likely the most infamous Alcatraz inmate was Al "Scarface" Capone, who was imprisoned due to tax evasion (they could never find proof for all the other crimes he committed). A few less-known (though they were just as famous then) are Robert "Birdman" Straud and George "Machine Gun" Kelly. 

A few tidbits we enjoyed learning was that some of the inmates used the countless hours of imprisonment for painting, reading, and even learning to crochet. Also, though there was a recreational area outside of the prison,  weight-training was prohibited because the guards did not want the prisoners getting strong enough upper bodies to brave the strong currents of the bay if an escape was attempted. For the same reason, inmates were always given a warm-to-hot shower rather than the typical cold showers so their bodies would not have a chance at acclimating to the frigid temperatures of the bay. Obviously, a lot of thought went into keeping those crooks where they belonged -- behind bars. Though I understood these were the worse-of-the-worst criminals, I felt a tinge of sadness when we learned that the inmates would feel tortured by the wind-carried sounds of the tourists and residents enjoying a pleasant day on the San Francisco piers while they were locked up a few miles away. 

Pop culture has been intrigued by the mystery and notoriety of Alcatraz with films like The Rock (with Sean Connery and Nickolas Cage) and even subtle references (such as Harry Potter's wizording prison, Azkaban). 

Alcatraz closed as a prison in 1963. Less known about the island's history is that there was an occupation by Native Americans on Alcatraz that lasted 19 months from 1969-1971. 89 Native Americans lived on the island, citing the Treaty of Loramie, which declared that out-of-use federal land would be returned to Native Americans who once lived on the land. They believed Alcatraz fit the requirements and made their political statement by occupying it during a time when Native Americans were increasingly being pushed off land. Graffiti declaring "Indians Welcome" is visible on certain buildings and the water tower.
 Below was the block of cells called "The Hole," which housed prisoners who were being punished for bad behavior. 
 Apparently the food was so good at Alcatraz, prisoners from other prisons requested to be moved there for the food! The knife rack in the center of the photo had the shadows of each knife so that it would be obvious if one was missing (and possibly in the hands of an inmate). 
I was surprised that the island had beautiful small gardens around it. For such a dark, dreary history and purpose, the island was beautiful on this warm, spring day. Also to note, the families of the guards and wardens lived on the island and led mostly normal lives (except for the fact American's most notorious criminals lived next door!). They had a bowling alley on the island and the kids rode a ferry to get to school in San Francisco. 
I was feeling sneaky after "doing time" on The Rock, so I snapped this photo of the professional photo that was taken with the intention that it would be purchased. What can I say? I am just hard like that, haha.

We had a great time on the island. Alcatraz Cruises provided the headsets we wore for the duration of the tour of the prison and we learned a lot. We meandered around the grounds and gift shop before hopping on the next boat to get back to San Francisco. 

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Elle Alice