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Escape to Alcatraz, the infamous prison island and the riotous sea lions of Pier 39

Before setting out to the prison island of Alcatraz we needed to get some lunch so we decide to try out the bakery – come café – come restaurant, Boudins, on Fishermans Wharf. This establishment is famous for its sour dough bread and when we arrived there was a crowd watching one of the bread makers in the window making a turtle shaped sour dough creation. He had a microphone so we could hear him outside and he was being interviewed and filmed by the Travel Channel as we watched, so we got a real performance. This has finally set our minds to have sour dough chili bread bowls for lunch.

By the time we finished it was approaching departure time for Alcatraz. We would be getting there by the same mode the prisoners would have been transported; by boat from San Francisco. Alcatraz was a Federal prison from 1934 to 1963, and was a place where the worst of the worst got sent. All but one of the total 1600 prisoners who called Alcatraz home were transferred from other State Penitentiaries for being “naughty” boys (were trouble makers or had committed crimes whilst inside, such as murdering a fellow inmate or worse; a prison guard). Such infamous characters as the gangsters Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelley and Robert Stroud, the bird man of Alcatraz, were incarcerated here for the remainder of their lives. Alcatraz had no death row, so you only left after completing your sentence or passed away from natural causes. This place had been a military fort for many years before becoming a penitentiary.

The prison service stopped using it in 1963 because it was too expensive to maintain. Alcatraz was then occupied by native Americans for several years, during which time some damage was done to several buildings. The use of open fires to keep warm resulted in several fires, including one which wrecked the Governors residence. Latterly, Alcatraz was made a National Park, preserving it for the 1½ million visitors who come to see this infamous prison annually.

When we disembarked the boat we arrived just in time to join a Ranger tour. This tour focused on the many escapes attempts from Alcatraz. Our guide was a gruff New Yorker called Al Blank, who reminded me a bit of Kojak (aka Telly Savalas – for those old of enough to remember this TV series). Al was a fantastic narrator and provided a spell binding overview of the 34 people who tried to escape this prison island. Some of the attempts were creative, including the escape immortalised in the Clint Eastwood movie “Escape from Alcatraz” and others were bloody, in particular the 1946 incident where prison guards were taken hostage and the Governor had to call in the Marines. The official line is that no one successfully escaped the island but some prisoners, such as those depicted in Escape from Alcatraz were never found. They were believed to have drowned. Why did no one escape? Well the water is a cool 48 degrees Fahrenheit and the tides and currents are treacherous!

After our guided tour we went to the main cell block where there is self-guided audio tour that, with narration from some of the former guards and inmates, helps you form an impression of what sort of place this was in which to be incarcerated. For many the hardest thing was to be a mere 1½ miles from San Francisco and freedom. With the wind in the right direction the prisoners could clearly hear the sounds of the city, driving them literally mad. The tour took us through the cell areas including block D, which was designated for solitary confinement. These cells were the largest and most modern in the block. We also got to go into the administration area with the control room, guard house and Governors office. Here we meet up with our old new friend Al Blank who introduced us to a fellow volunteer, John Ellis. Karen got chatting, as she has a tendency to do, telling them about her work in the UK prison service. Well this did the trick and we were invited on a special tour into locked areas where most people don’t get to go. We climbed up to where the prison chapel used to be; the paneled walls were removed by the occupying native Americans and used as fire wood. We got to see the prison guards’ games room and were then taken to the gun galleries where armed officers could look down into the cell block. John then took us into a part of the cell block which was not used in the penitentiary days, but were the original cells for the military prison, and from there we climbed the stairs to the old infirmary. Alcatraz was actually had a well equipped infirmary including an operating theatre and full blown sanatorium. In the sanatorium was a room where Robert Stroud (the Bird Man) was held in solitary confinement for many years. Unlike the gentle, intelligent man depicted in the Burt Lancaster film, Stroud was a psychopathic killer deemed to be too dangerous to be in the areas with the rest of the inmates were detained. These areas remain closed to the general public partially due to the single access stairs but also due to the lead based paint that the continual exposure to salt water spray carried on the wind is effectively stripping off the walls. We were so lucky to see these special places. By this time we finished our special tour we were running close to the knuckle for catching the last boat back to the mainland. Unlike the inmates of this desolate place we did make our escape!

The wind has picked up and it was really, really cold. We had planned to spend a bit more time going around Fisherman’s Wharf and perhaps catch a cable car, but it was just too cold. We did go on to Pier 39 where we caught a street performer doing his act; a mixture of comedy, juggling and escapology. He was actually very good. The funniest thing was right at the end of his act this old couple came up and sat down at the front of the stage and soon as he had finished and started his request for donations they got up and left like rats out of a trap. It was just as if one had said the other “ … come on dear we’ve only just arrived and now he’s finished and begging for money, lets slip out of here unnoticed”. Their timing was impeccable, and the performer was lost for words and his eyes just followed them, and of course being at the front everyone saw this, causing everyone to break out laughing. The temperature had dropped further and it was freezing, so we did a quick run past the Pier 39 seal lions performing, as they do, on the floating platforms and then made a dash for the warmth of our car.

Ranger tour at Alcatraz
Observation tower
One of the nicer cells
An older cell

Prisoners view from Alcatraz across to the Golden Gate bridge

View from Alcatraz, outside the prison walls, across to San Francisco

The operating table inside the infirmary

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