A visitor drives in San Francisco city. He drives from Union Square area heading north toward Fisherman’s Wharf, taking Leavenworth Street. Around the place where Leavenworth comes across Lombard Street on the top of the hill, the road starts to be downhill. In front of his windshield, lower part of his eyesight, he is now viewing northern part of San Francisco Bay. He will see an island, shaped like a huge battleship, with sharp and steep side, standing straight from the ocean surface.
He is watching Alcatraz Island, “Jail Island” in San Francisco Bay.
Many have known the name “Alcatraz” from movies and. It is world-famous Jail Island. The island had an unusual shape as mentioned. The both edges of the island are not slope. They are sharp and steep cliff. It also looked like a huge ship. It gives a viewer an impression immediately that it is an immense “Battleship”. Other than its unusual shape, with bright California sun, it did not look like a jail at all.
In addition, the island looked too close to the Fisherman’s Wharf to be “an inescapable island jail”. If one is a swimmer who can swim 2-3 miles, he might think he could swim to the island.
Alcatraz Island is located on the northern part of San Francisco Bay, between Fisherman’s Wharf and Marine County. It is so close to Fisherman’s Wharf that almost everybody wonder if it is the infamous prison island, which people called inescapable. A good swimmer would be able to swim the distance, if prepared to the temperature of the water with diving suits and guarded by an emergency rescue boat,. It was a couple of years ago, 6 years old boy could swim from Alcatraz to Fisherman’s Wharf.
Then, why is this jail island is inescapable? Talking with some people, there are several different answers. Water is too cold to keep swimming the distance without body temperature protection. San Francisco Bay looks calm in the surface. There is violent tide deep in the ocean. It changes directions so often. No swimmer can be free from the influence of this violent tide. Swimming at night is almost killing oneself. Man-eating sharks are active especially at night. Many of these may be true. These all factors are working together to prevent prisoners to escape from Alcatraz.
There was no one who escaped from Alcatraz alive during its history served as a jail island in official records.
Ferries to Alcatraz depart from pier 33. If one stays in San Francisco and hope to visit Alcatraz, he should select weekday and make reservation 3-5 days before he schedules to visit. Weekends’ tickets are usually sold out for next 2-3 weeks. In the ferry boarding area, there are exhibitions of notorious criminals jailed in Alcatraz, including Al Capone.
Travel time in Alcatraz Island Ferry to Alcatraz is incredibly short. It does not take more than 15 minutes to reach the island. Even there is no enough time to enjoy views of San Francisco city area or Golden Gate Bridge, despite the fact that there is a magnificent view over them, since it is the best boat trip to view over San Francisco city, Marine County, and East Bay.
We can freely explore Alcatraz now since the federal government closed the jail, and it is now a part of Golden Gate National Park. For the criminals sent to Alcatraz, it meant “Death Sentence” for them. In the Ferry Boarding Area, just next to Al Capone picture, a picture of wall graffiti of unknown prisoner says “You will be sent to jail if you break the law. If you break a rule in jail, you will be sent to Alcatraz”. One can feel hearing a prisoner sobbing in his jail cell. My Japanese friend commented to my Blog post one time. “It is exciting to take a look into infamous jail island without committing a crime”. Simple crime is not enough to be sent to Alcatraz. One needs to commit a crime of Al Capone level to be sent there.
It is a part of Golden Gate National Park, so the rule is “Don’t carry in anything, do not carry out anything, other than you throw away garbage and you buy souvenirs.” As soon as arriving at the front gate of the jail, visitors will listen to 10 minutes explanation about the history of Alcatraz and visiting rules. Now they must be ready for walking into the jail chamber.
All they have inside of the island is Jail Building. White hospital like looking building is building for jail facility. Other than that, there are some small houses for wardens and wardens’ family lived. Stepping into the jail building, visitors will visit the shower place, first. It may be the first place where the prisoners went when sent to Alcatraz. In here, visitors can rent narration unit explaining histories of Alcatraz as they walk through the island. There are translated narration unit is available for Japanese, Chinese, and many European languages.
Now let’s walk into the center of cell area. There are small cells on both sides of not so wide hallway. They are individual cells for prisoners. They are incredibly small. Cells lined up side-by-side and three stories. The ceiling of each cell is low. It looks like so small that, if one stretch his arms, his both hands touch walls. Animals living environment in zoo looks much better than this. It would not take more than 3 days to make a normal person totally crazy if one continue to live in place like this.
Now visitors stand in front of a black board hung in the higher part of the Dining. It is the menu placed on the top of the dining area entrance overhead. The board was showing breakfast of the day. “Assorted Dry Cereals”, “Stewed Whole Wheat”, ” 1 Scrambled Egg”, “2 Milk”, “Stewed Fruit”, and “Toast”. Top of the board showed “21 March 1963”. Their breakfast on March 21, 1963 did not look miserable.
There is a window looks like a window of submarine or battle ship at the corner of a hallway. There is some story This is the windows inmates can look out. What they could see was San Francisco city. It is not just through this window, but prisoners could have a clear view of San Francisco city. In festive time, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc, prisoners could watch city dressed up with illuminations, fireworks, and could even hear people partying, singing, dancing, laughing, and enjoying.
It would have been unendurable torture for prisoners who could feel, sense, watch, and hear the people free outside, enjoying themselves in festive occasions. They must have wanted to close their eyes, cover their ears. They could still feel what is happening on the other side of the Bay. How horrible it was. What a cruel torture, human beings could do to the other human beings even they are criminals!.
History shows that there were lots of escape attempts from Alcatraz. Official record indicates “34 Escape Attempts, 7 killed, 2 drowned, 5 missing, and 20 arrested”. Included in the missing were “Frank Morris” and Anglin brothers as shown the movie “Escape from Alcatraz”. Frank Morris was sent to Alcatraz in 1960. He planned and attempted prison break in 1962 with John Anglin, Clarence Anglin, and Allen West. They built a raft. They made their own dolls. Put them in their beds. They continued to dig to escape for 2 years. They put their plan into an action on June 11, 1962. Allen West was late and could not join the escape.
FBI started search immediately, but they could not find them. They could not find their bodies, as well. All they found were a part of their raft, bags of Anglins, and some other belongings to fugitives. FBI and Alcatraz authority decided that they were drowned and died. Federal government decided to close Alcatraz Prison about 1 year after this escape.
Another important figure in Alcatraz is Warden and Officers in Alcatraz. Show room in Alcatraz displays mannequin of the officer in Alcatraz used to be. They lived in the island with their family. Across the road of the jailhouse building, there are individual house ruin of the wardens and officers. Higher-class officers could live in a separate house. Now, if someone wanted houses like them with a great view to San Francisco city, he might have needed to spend well over 1 million dollars.
Also, their children were attending schools in San Francisco across the bay. They were taking ferries every morning and evening to attend their schools. In comparison with inmates, the officers lives might not have been so miserable. Lives of officers in prisons and jails, however, were not easy. It could be as destructive as prisoners. They need to be tensed days and nights. If something happens, the officers need to fight for their lives. Prisoners are not amiable to them. They must be tough to inmates. The jail island made lives of all related people hard.
Isolated from outside society, this island had their own functions. They had their own fire-fighting unit. There is a fire truck preserved in the island silently telling the days when the island was still the jail.