Alcatraz, if you hear the name, you inevitably get goose bumps and light shivers down your spine. “The Rock” or “America’s Devil Island” is notorious and caused horror stories more than once during its use as a maximum security prison. It is not for nothing that Alcatraz is considered the model for the notorious Azkaban wizarding prison, which is certainly known to many from the world around Harry Potter.
But let’s start at the beginning. In the bay of San Francisco there is an approximately 8.5 hectare, 500 meter long and up to 41 meter high island. The first lighthouse on the US west coast was built on it in 1854.
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Alcatraz was initially used as a site for a fortified fort, but soon (from 1861) also as a prison for prisoners of war. Their time as the superprison site began with Franklin Roosevelt and his Attorney General Homer Cummings declaring war on the Mafia gangsters of the day.
Everyday life in Alcatraz
Alcatraz seems predestined for this role. Over two kilometers from the mainland, surrounded by ice-cold water and strong currents, it is almost impossible to escape from there. And there was also a high-tech prison that was secured using the latest technology at the time.
Alcatraz was home to the worst criminals to make the US unsafe at the time for nearly 30 years. But also offenders who were transferred there from other prisons because they were considered incorrigible and difficult. A total of around 1,545 prisoners were housed there between 1934 and 1963. The most famous of these is probably Al Capone, who was incarcerated on prison island between 1934 and 1939.
Whoever visits Alcatraz today can only guess what it must have been like back then when the “tough guys” were serving their sentences. There was an icy silence on America’s Devil Island. The inmates were housed in small cells with only a sink, toilet and bed and spent 18 to 23 hours a day in the cages, which were only 1.52 meters wide and 2.74 meters long. The prison regime was considered merciless. Nobody was allowed to move freely on the premises, it was only allowed to speak in the workplace and in the canteen and the prisoners were always under heavy guard.
The light was on around the clock and letters were only read and censored to the respective recipients. Those who did not obey the rules had to expect to be taken into solitary confinement in the “dungeons” (dungeons) under blocks A and D or in the naked cell in block D. And the hot water showers, which at first glance appear to be a boon (they weren’t available in any other prison in the country) had only one goal: the prisoners should not be used to cold water in order to reduce their chances of trying to escape. In particular, the ban on speaking afflicted many prisoners. Quite a few went insane or committed suicide.
Escape from Alcatraz
According to official reports, no one ever managed to escape from Alcatraz. Even if the spectacular escape of Frank Morris and the brothers John and Clarence Anglin here repeatedly raises doubts. The escape of these three convicts also served as a template for the Hollywood film “Escape from Alcatraz” from 1979 with Clint Eastwood in the lead role.
The end of the super prison
Construction errors ultimately led to the end of Alcatraz in 1963. The salt water with which the toilets were operated, together with the salty air, made the former superknast an ailing relic. The last 27 prisoners who were housed in Alcatraz were distributed to different prisons on March 21, 1963.
The fascination of Alcatraz
Alcatraz fascinated the public and continues to do so to this day. A gruesome picture was painted of the conditions in “The Rock” and the filtered information, which was only given to the public by the BOP (Federal Bureau of Prisons), added to the merciless reputation of the maximum security prison.
After the island had again received media attention due to occupation actions by the Indian movement in the 1960s and early 1970s and plans to turn it into a casino failed, it was finally opened to the public in 1972. Today the former prison island as part of the Golden Gate National Seashore is a museum tourist attraction with over 1 million visitors a year.
Alcatraz is open every day (except Christmas and New Years) and can be visited until 6 p.m. in summer and until 4 p.m. in the other times of the year. Visiting the prison and the island is free, but tickets must be purchased for the ferry, which leaves San Francisco every 30 minutes from Alcatraz. The fare includes the audio tour in the cell block, which is also available in German. Original recordings by contemporary witnesses can only be heard in the English version.
In the prison itself, the cell block, the dining room, the library and the prison yard can be visited. In addition, a prison exhibition is set up in the guards’ accommodation block. But there is also a model of Fort Alcatraz during its military use between 1865 and 1868, which, like the remaining buildings from the time of the civil wars, gives an idea of what Alcatraz looked like in the 19th century.
Traces of the American-Indian occupation in the 60s and 70s, such as the handwritten words “Indianland” or “Indians welcome”, can still be seen today.
In addition to its flower gardens, which offer an impressive contrast to the gloomy concrete buildings, Alcatraz offers a habitat for rare plants and numerous birds.
General advice for visiting the island
The weather is often unpredictable on Alcatraz. It could be that the temperatures in San Francisco are summery and it is very cold on Alcatraz. Here it is worthwhile to resort to the “onion look” in order to be able to adapt to the changing temperatures.
There is no place to buy something to eat on the island. Bring your own food can be consumed in the picnic areas and in the docks area. Smoking is also allowed there. However, there is the possibility to buy something to eat, drink or other refreshments on the ferries.