San francisco Bay, CA


February 29, 2016

Alcatraz is mostly ruins, but this to-scale model is what the prison and accompanying buildings would have looked like during its heyday as a federal prison, circa the 1930s . You'll see in a moment that it looks MUCH different from this now.

So the morning I'm scheduled to go to Alcatraz, I wake up at 7:30AM to put money in the meter for my car. Why is my car at a meter, you ask? Because valet was $58 and that is utterly ridiculous, even for San Francisco. Back in the hotel, I make chat with the receptionist as I'm getting my coffee. I mention that I'm going to Alcatraz later.

An hour or so later, I wander back downstairs with my luggage to check out. I have on a flannel and jeans. The receptionist says, "oh, you changed your mind about Alcatraz?"

Me: Um... no.

Receptionist: Oh. You need more clothes. You have a sweater in your bag?

I do.

She says, "put that on".

Receptionist: You got a jacket in there?

I do.

She says, "put that on too".

I think she's being a bit dramatic. I mean, I was just outside in a thin jacket and I was fine. I figure I'll judge the weather when I get closer to the pier where the boat is leaving from. So I park near the pier. I'm hot. I take off the sweater. I get to the pier and see people in parkas. What am I missing?

Long story short: I needed the sweater. San Francisco weather is nuts and Alcatraz was freezing... and hella foggy. And damp. It was hell, weather wise, until the sun came out, which as you can see from most of the pics, took awhile.

This is the first building everyone sees pulling up to Alcatraz. Everyone assumes it's the prison, but it's actually not. The prison is on a hill behind this structure. If I recall, this building was the dorms for the officers. On the audio tour, former inhabitants on the island-- um, the island full of notorious prisoners-- described it as very safe. People didn't even lock their doors. To credit, there was never an incident with a prisoner escaping and attacking the inhabitants. Anybody who found their way out of the actual prison was trying to get off the island.

The (ruins of) Officer's Club. If you worked at Alcatraz , you-- and your family-- also lived on Alcatraz. This where the guards and their families used to hang out.

The guard tower. According to the audio tour, this was every guard's least favorite job. They would up there in the cold, whipping wind, and damp weather for hours.

A defunct staircase. I thought it was beautiful.

Inside Alcatraz. I find the symmetry beautiful. As you can see, despite the fame, or er, infamy, of the prison, it was very bare bones. I mean, it's a prison. Capone had a much different stay here than he did at Eastern Penn in Philadelphia. (He lived in luxe-- for prison anyway-- while at Eastern.) Other famous Alcatraz prisoners include "Machine Gun" Kelly,  Harlem's "Bumpy" Johnson (aka Denzel Washington's mentor in American Gangster. He was also played by Laurence Fishburne in Hoodlum.)

"The Hole" , ie, solitary confinement. Inmates would receive a restricted diet and remain in total darkness for up to 19 days. On the audio tour, an inmate who spent time in the hole recalled occupying his mind by ripping a button off his shirt, tossing it in the air, then searching for it in the dark.

This key set off a sh*t storm in 1946. In a roundabout way, it led to what's called the "Battle of Alcatraz" in which two guards and three inmates were killed during a botched escape plan.

Alcatraz had divine food, as mandated by government regulation. Inmates testified that it was fresh and delicious. Apparently nothing sets off prisoners like bad food. In the middle, picture, the "knife drawer" with the drawings, is so guards could look and immediately know what knife was missing and the level of danger they or another inmate was in. In all the years of Alcatraz's operation, nothing major ever popped off in the cafeteria. Or at least, they never had to use the gas bombs.

This is the prison courtyard-- not for prisoners-- outside of the Administration building and the prison warden's house (first picture). On a good day-- or certain times of a good day-- prisoners and occupants on Alcatraz could see straight thru to San Francisco. Other times, as in the middle picture, not so much. The island ends and there's just a ball of fog. In the other direction, looking toward the iconic Bay Bridge, the fog wasn't so bad.

If San Francisco (and Oakland) look really close, it's because they are. Alcatraz is about a mile and a quarter off the mainland. Prisoners said when the wind blew just right, they could hear music and laughing from parties. They could also see the city clearly sometimes, which reminded them of a world they could no longer access. 

Souvenirs in the gift shop. Apparently inmates would run their tin cups along the cell doors to make noise. We've already discussed the infamous key.

For a brief period— 19 months— in the late 60s/ early 70s, 89 Native Americans, who called themselves Indians of All Tribes, occupied Alcatraz. They were eventually removed by the United States government.

It was super foggy when we approached the island, so I missed the sign— and views-- below. Horrible place, but gorgeous views, you know, when it's not foggy. 

Images provided by Demetria Lucas D'Oyley. All rights reserved.