When our friends were planning their trip to San Francisco a few months ago, they had two requests for their trip: to drink wine and to go to Alcatraz. Having checked off one goal the day before, we were up early the following morning at Pier 33 to catch the ferry over to Alcatraz.
It had probably been ten or fifteen years since the last time I toured the famous island prison, so I was excited to visit again. Their audio tour takes you back in time and helps you imagine what life would have been like as a prisoner there on "the rock."
After a brief introduction by a park ranger once we disembarked the ferry, we walked up the winding path to the cell house at highest point of the island.
The cells were bare.
Three levels of cells. Only the higher levels had views through the windows to the outside world.
If prisoners demonstrated good behavior, they could earn books or art supplies and recreation time outside in a guarded playground.
If they did not, they might find themselves in "The Hole," one of ten solitary confinement cells without windows. Prisoners with the worst behavior spent days upon days in the double-barred cells without light or sound.
This is one of the few windows in the prison at eye-level. You can barely make out the outline of the city's tall buildings through the foggy glass.
Alcatraz Island's lighthouse is the oldest lighthouse on the West Coast.
We learned about the only semi-successful escape from Alcatraz. Two brothers and a third prisoner created dummy heads, complete with hair and painted facial features, to buy themselves time when the prison guards patrolled. The prisoners escaped through the vents in the back of their cells (which they had widened over the course of several years with spoons and other sharp tools), climbed up the pipes, and out onto the roof. The three prisoners were never captured or discovered; most people assume they died in the cold ocean water. But no evidence exists either way, whether they successfully escaped or died trying....
Towards the end of the audio tour, we walked into the big eating room, where ex-prisoner Robert Luke was giving a lecture and answering questions. Mr. Luke was arrested for armed bank robbery and was sent to Alcatraz Island after he attempted escape from Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas. He served five years on Alcatraz--1954-1959--as inmate #1118AZ, after which he was released when all charges were dropped against him! Now 84 years old, he has only recently begun to admit his past to friends, and he tells his story of his time served at Alcatraz with his wife sitting in the front row.
It was so interesting to hear him talk about life in the cells there.
There's an eerie feeling on the island. I was definitely ready to head back to the city after a few hours in the cold and damp cell house.
Back on land, we wandered around Fisherman's Wharf and enjoyed lunch, then walked up to Buena Vista Cafe where we warmed up with these:
Irish coffees from the place that "invented" them!
It was a perfect way to round out the afternoon.