Alcatraz is the infamous, scary prison where prisoners were tortured and underwent medical experiments, right? Actually, that is not the case at all. Even though Alcatraz, or “The Rock”, wasn’t a place where you would have wanted to live, the many horrors you may have heard about aren’t true.
For almost thirty years, Alcatraz was the destination for America’s most dangerous and crooked criminals.
Alcatraz was ultimately closed down because it was too expensive to maintain. The building wasn’t made of the right materials for its environment. You could literally touch some of the walls and they would turn into sand.
Today, it’s a national park that is a great tourist attraction because of its odd location and the famous criminals that were held there.
In January, I was able to go to San Francisco, California. Once I realized Alcatraz was there, I knew I had to go.
I am a history junkie, and love learning about criminals (I’m weird, I know), so I was very excited to learn about the escapees, torture “stories”, and its overall environment.
Because Alcatraz is located on an island in the San Francisco Bay, we had to take a boat to reach it.
This is a replica of the island. The big building on the top is where the prisoners lived.
It’s surrounded by cold water and powerful currents of the San Francisco Bay. This made authorities believe it was escape-proof. Therefore, there was no need to have walls around the entire island. It’s not like the prisoners were walking along the shore, they were held in a high-security cell building and were only allowed outside in one recreational area, which was surrounded by tall walls.
When we reached the island, we had to climb to the top of the island (which was quite a workout). The guides gave us an audio tour which enabled us to relive the days when Alcatraz was still operating. The tapes related stories told by several prisoners and guards throughout the entire tour. We got to see the different hallways of cells, the library, the dining hall, the warden’s office, and the recreation yard which was really the only place on Alcatraz where prisoners had any freedom. They could choose if they wanted to play baseball, talk to other prisoners, or run laps.
What a typical hallway of cells would look like.
This is the recreation yard.
Even though Alcatraz was suppose to have been escape proof, there were several escape attempts, and one person, John Paul Scott, actually did make it to shore in 1962. Because of this gruesome swim, he was very tired when he reached the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. Police discovered him out cold and in hypothermic shock. Today, hundreds complete the 1.5-mile swim during the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon. The youngest person ever to swim from shore to Alcatraz was a seven-year-old girl, with the help of her father!
As for the infamous torture chambers, there actually weren’t any special facilities for physical tortures. The medical experiments, the electric shock treatments, and other terrors that were rumored about, also did not occur in Alcatraz.
In fact, Alcatraz was a place some criminals wanted to go because of the reputation of the warden. The warden provided better food and additional servings, if desired, to help keep rioting down. There was a substantial library and monthly movies at Alcatraz for the prisoners. They even had warm water! Alcatraz was the only prison that had warm water for prisoners. They gave them warm water instead of cold because they didn’t want the prisoners to get used to the cold water. This way they wouldn’t become acclimated to cold water allowing them to make the escape swim in the Bay easier.
The inmates often heard people from the Bay at night time. The loudest of nights was New Years Eve, when they heard laughter and music all night long.
Some of its most famous prisoners were Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert Stroud “The Birdman”. But, for the most part, the other prisoners were people who refused to follow the rules at other prisons, or who were considered dangerous and escape risks.
Beautiful views right outside of the wardens office. If you are caught after hours, you can be fined $5,000!!!
Overall, Alcatraz was a strict prison where the prisoners really only had four rights: food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. Anything else the prisoners got were privileges. Even though it had some special perks like movie nights and better food, it was still a last resort for most people. There were gangs in there that were separated by races, which made the living environment very hostile. If you were thrown in solitary confinement you were living in a dark cell (literally dark, there weren’t any lights in them which was illegal) with nothing to do but have a crazy imagination. However, if the prisoners had good behavior for about five years, they were sent to another prison to live out the rest of their sentence.
This island wasn’t just a place for prisoners, children lived here too! The guards and their families had housing on one side of the island. The children had their own school that they went to on the island, and one of the daughters even got married there!
You should definitely put visiting Alcatraz on your bucket list. You learn so much history and interesting stories, along with a captivating audio tour which really allows you to get a glimpse into the life of the prisoners. But don’t worry, at the end of the day you will be able to escape from Alcatraz!