Taking a ferry over to Alcatraz Island and exploring the famous decommissioned prison is on most people’s travel agenda when they visit San Francisco. I’m no exception. I was really excited about it and, as soon as we’d booked our flight to San Francisco, I went online to book our tickets for Alcatraz.
I was really glad I did. I later found out that had I waited until we were actually in San Francisco to buy our tickets we would have been disappointed (gutted, actually) as tickets had all sold out for our dates. So if you are planning to visit Alcatraz as part of a trip to San Francisco do plan ahead. Tickets are available to purchase up to 90 days ahead online so buy before you go. This is the link to the official Alcatraz Cruises site.
The Alcatraz Island Tour starts off from Pier 33 – also known as Alcatraz Landing. It’s just a short walk from Fisherman’s Wharf. We arrived half an hour before our ferry time (as it says on the ticket) and we joined the queue. It was a pleasant 15-minute ferry ride over to the island and it was exciting to see the imposing prison getting closer and closer as we stood on the deck snapping photos.
You can take your time and stay on Alcatraz Island as long as you like and then take whatever ferry suits you back to the mainland. We listened to the visitor’s welcome talk and then walked up the hill to the prison, stopping to look at the oldest lighthouse on the Californian coastline and also to take in the poignancy of the ‘Indians Welcome’ graffiti left by the island’s occupation of Native Americans in 1969/1971.
It was a warm, sunny, and a calm day when we entered the walls of the prison that had held the most dangerous criminals in America – like Al ‘Scarface’ Capone, George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, Arthur ‘Doc’ Barker and probably the most famous of all Robert ‘The Birdman’ Stroud. Burt Lancaster starred in the 1962 movie ‘The Bird Man of Alcatraz‘ about Stroud’s life in solitary confinement on D Block. Stroud was reportedly never allowed to see it. While walking around the cell blocks, as a writer with a vivid imagination I could easily imagine what it must have been like to have been imprisoned there in the wintertime, on cold and dark and stormy nights. It must have been horrible. Inside the prison the atmosphere was hauntingly oppressive.
We were told that when the wind blew towards the island, prisoners could often hear music and parties and people having fun in the city that was so close and yet so far away. That was said to be the worst torture of all for the prisoners. From my perspective, looking down from the prison wall to the water of the bay it looked as though it might be easy to escape simply by swimming away. But the currents in the bay area are said to be treacherous.
There have of course in the past been many escape attempts. The most fascinating escape attempt, in my opinion, and certainly the most mysterious, was on the night of 11 June 1962. When brothers John and Clarence Anglin and fellow inmate Frank Morris pulled off a prison break so daring it went on to inspire Hollywood thriller Escape from Alcatraz starring Clint Eastwood.
The men used blades, spoons and a drill over the course of six months to gradually dig an exit opening through ventilation ducts in their cells. They fashioned papier-mâché models of their own heads using plaster and their own hair to make them look lifelike. Then on the night of their daring escape they used towels and clothing to pad out their beds and conceal their absence. To date, the escape holes they forged and the model heads are still on display at Alcatraz inside the men’s prison cells.
I found this story utterly fascinating. Until recently – I visited the site in 2018 – it was believed the three men had drowned in the bay on that night in 1962 because they were never seen again. But a letter has since appeared apparently written by John Anglin (who would now be 83 years old) that may solve the mystery over what became of the three men. The letter – obtained by CBS San Francisco – was allegedly sent to the city’s Richmond police station in 2013 and claims that Clarence Anglin died in 2011 and Morris in 2008. You can read more about this letter and about John Anglin and the prisoners who escaped with him from Alcatraz in this 2018 news report in The Independent.
It was also interesting that while we were on the island, a former inmate, William ‘Bad Boy’ Baker, aged 80, who had written a book about his time in Alcatraz Prison in the 1950’s entitled ‘Alcatraz – 1258’ was in the gift shop/bookshop that day to personally sign copies of his book. 1259 had been his prison number. Baker, who claims he learned how to counterfeit cheques in Alcatraz and ‘learned from the best’ is usually on the island every Wednesday through Friday to sign copies of his book. I’m sure it will be an interesting read. It was great to meet him and he’s a real rockstar of The Rock!
After taking the headset tour and listening to all the interesting information and stories of Alcatraz – and of course having my picture taken through the bars from inside one of the tiny cells, we went outside to take a breath of fresh air and admire the city skyline of San Francisco and The Golden Gate Bridge.
Visiting Alcatraz had been all and more than I expected.
What an amazing experience!
Have you ever been to Alcatraz Island or are you planning a visit?
Do leave a comment and if you have been to Alcatraz I’d love to see your ‘behind bars’ photo.