The new television series Alcatraz begins with this statement: “On March 21, 1963, Alcatraz officially closed. All the prisoners were transferred off the island. Only that’s not what happened. Not at all.”
Although Alcatraz prison has been closed for almost 50 years, it continues to inspire popular culture as a setting for mystery, intrigue and prison horror stories. J.J. Abrams, the producer of the new Alcatraz series, is certainly not the first to use the prison as the inspiration for a television show and he won’t be the last.
America’s most notorious prison still fascinates the public and is the most popular tourist attraction in San Francisco.
As our tour boat pulled away from Pier 33 of the San Francisco harbour, our tour guide Jim promised there would be “a lot of surprises on the tour” and that we would find that Alcatraz is “a layer cake of history.” I couldn’t help thinking that a food metaphor was an unusual way to describe the prison that from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s stood as America’s premiere maximum security penitentiary — housing its most notorious criminals.
As we exited the boat to enter the island, Jim delivered on his promise with the first surprise of the evening — the story of the guards and their families. There were about 300 civilians who lived on Alcatraz and there were facilities to accommodate the wives and children of the guards, including a grade school, a playground, a library and beautiful gardens.
“There was one guard for every three inmates on Alcatraz and these guards lived with their families on the island,” said Jim. “You would think that living on Alcatraz might be frightening, but the island was so secure that most families never bothered to lock their doors.”
As we followed the prisoner pathway up the hill leading to the facility, we passed some of the island’s historic gardens.
To many horticulturists, the historic gardens of Alcatraz stand as an inspiring example of man’s desire to create beauty in the harshest environment. Planted and cared for by officers, families and prisoners who were confined to the island, the plants managed to survive four decades of neglect after the prison was closed before the gardens were painstakingly restored in 2003.
As we entered the prison, we were supplied with audio headsets that carried recordings made by four former prisoners and four former guards describing Alcatraz as they remembered it. Walking through the cell block and hearing the prisoners and guards describing everyday life was fascinating.
I wandered upstairs to the hospital wing and visited the private cell that once belonged to Robert Stroud, known as the Birdman of Alcatraz. Stroud was a notoriously difficult prisoner who developed a keen interest in birds after finding an injured canary in the recreation yard at Leavenworth prison. To keep him under control, he was allowed to raise and research canaries inside his prison cell and later published two books based on his research.
A tour guide told me that Shroud also wrote a manuscript for a third book about the history of the American prison system that has never been published due to a legal battle that still surrounds the manuscript.
The most dramatic part of the tour came when the guards gave a demonstration of the evening lockdown procedure. As I stood in the cell block outside the former cell of Al Capone and heard the metal bars of the cells slam shut and lock, I could sense the feeling of utter confinement that prisoners experienced.
Before leaving Alcatraz Island, we stepped out onto the point and watched the sun set over the San Francisco Bay. I snapped some pictures as the sky turned red and pink and thought how ironic it was that this place that still seems so dark and mysterious finds its way into so many tourist photos.
If you go:
• Alcatraz remains one of the top tourist attractions in the San Francisco Bay area and tours frequently sell out well in advance — especially during the summer months and during school holidays. It is advisable to purchase tickets in advance online by visiting the official website for Alcatraz tours at www.alcatrztours.com or by phoning 415-981-ROCK.
• The Alcatraz Night Tour is the most comprehensive Alcatraz experience. It includes special programs and presentations and visits to areas of the prison that are not offered during day tours. A night tour of Alcatraz costs US$33 per adult, while a day tour costs US$26 per adult. Discounts are available for children, seniors and families.
• For more information about Alcatraz as a national park, visit http://www.nps.gov/alca/index.htm.
San Francisco’s top five free attractions
• Golden Gate Bridge: Declared one of the Modern Wonders of the World by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the world’s most iconic structures. You can experience this landmark for free simply by walking or biking across its 2.7-km length.
• Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf: See the sea lions at Pier 39 and explore the shops and restaurants along the wharf. There is always something happening at Fisherman’s Wharf, one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist destinations.
• Lombard Street: Located between Hyde and Leavenworth Streets, Lombard Street is known in San Francisco as the world’s “crookedest” street. Even though it isn’t really the most crooked street in the world, it is fun to stand at the bottom and snap a picture of the eight hairpin turns and flowered walkways.
• Coit Tower: Perched atop Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower offers a fantastic view of the city. The tower was a bequest to the city from a wealthy, eccentric woman named Lillie Hitchcock Coit and was completed in 1933.
• Chinatown: The 24 blocks that make up San Francisco’s Chinatown are packed with tourist-friendly shops, markets, and restaurants. A must-see stop is the Golden Gate Cookie Factory on Ross Alley, where every day they make 20,000 fortune cookies by hand.
Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.