Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Alcatraz... the bare, windswept rock in the middle of San Francisco Bay where maximum-security prisoners were kept, the sight and sounds of the city so tantilisingly close!

On Sunday we did the "night tour" of Alcatraz, along with Ida, who is currently visiting us from NZ. It was very foggy and cold...

On the boat, Alcatraz loomed out of the mist. Foghorns blared somewhere in the distance. In the fog and the cold and the wind, this is a very desolate place. One can imagine very well how the prisoners might have felt upon arriving here!

We arrived at the island and stood at the dock. A sign left over from the American Indian occupation of Alcatraz was visible above us:

The guide stood underneath the sign and talked about how there would be four hills to climb on the island, scaring some people into catching the golf carts reserved for disabled tour members. The 'hills' were actually one small slope. I reminded myself that San Franciscans might be used to walking up hills, but most of America isn't. And tour visitors seem to be part of the second group.

We walked up through the Civil War-era fort, I think it's called a sally-port or something. There was a cannon still inside. One purpose for the big doors seems to be so that you can fire the cannon through the space! The small slits on each side are for people to fire rifles through.

Here is the outside of the fort:

Finally, we got to the main prison. Here are the showers and laundry area (laundry was done by prisoners):

We also played the "spot the San Francisco-labelled jackets" game, which signifies the wearer is a tourist visiting San Francisco. They have bought the aforementioned jacket or hoodie from one of the many shops in Chinatown or Fisherman's Wharf hawking cheap clothing, when they realised (almost immediately!) that San Francisco weather is NOT like the rest of California weather.

Here are the winners. They're all wearing the jackets. They thought I was taking a photo of the urinal behind them.

Then, each person was given a set of headphones and a little electronic player, and we all set off on our own "self-guided tour" of the prison. The audio commentary was very good, directing us around each part of the prison. Using samples from interviews with ex-prisoners, prison guards and other people associated with the island during that time, it told stories of famous people and events there (including an infamous hostage shootout), and gave a really good sense of what life must have been like.

Here is one of the cells where there was a famous escape. The men used hard steel spoons to scrape away the crumbling concrete by the vents, and escaped from the vents onto the roof. They created paper mache heads with hair made from paintbrushes, so the guards initially thought they were sleeping. While one of them eventually swam all the way to San Francisco against the tide (for a total of 7 miles!), he was picked up again when someone found him with severe hypothermia on the rocks by the beach, wearing only a pair of socks!

There are 3 rows of cells stacked on top of each other along each side. Each cell contains a tiny (fold-up?) chair and table, two shelves, a mattress, sink and a toilet. It feels very cramped.

Here I am in the isolation ward, where people who misbehaved were put. The cells on the bottom right were called 'The Hole'. Prisoners were put into them for a few days as punishment. The doors were closed, and it was pitch black. One former prisoner on the audio tour described how he would toss a button around and try to find it, to keep himself sane. I couldn't walk into them. I tried a few times. It felt too wrong, like hitting an invisible brick wall.

These isolation cells are actually a lot bigger than the normal cells. (If you click on the picture to make it larger, you can read the little informational board with the illustrations.)

The tour ended with a demonstration of the clanging cell doors. The tour guide told the story of one prisoner who got so fed up with hearing the sound all day, that he escaped! He spent three days hiding in an icy cave with water up to his chest, until he gave up and broke back in to Alcatraz, falling asleep in his cell by the heater!

Overall it was a really interesting tour - and the mist made for a great atmosphere!

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