You could see it in the distance across the bay. It seemed close–too close–but if you asked a past resident, they would tell you it was never close enough. There were a total of 14 attempted escapes from the Alcatraz Island prison. I say attempted because there is no knowledge of anyone ever being found again on the mainland.
Some were captured hanging for dear life on the cliff walls, others weren’t so lucky, being shot down or drowned by the heavy currents. The furthest anyone has made it (that we know of) was found clinging to the edge of the Golden Gate Bridge, exhausted, but again the efforts were without reward as he was dragged right back to the island.
As our ferry circled in near, I watched as the birds swarmed in the air, making a beautiful sight out of a horrific place. It was nesting season and they were building homes on the little island to prepare. Twigs and branches stuck out of their beaks as they cruised by us and back to their loved ones.
Exiting the ferry, we found there weren’t any pamphlets left in our language and decided to take the path up the left and see what we could find by exploring instead. The first structure we came across could easily be classified as a ruin. Empty stone walls with rocks crumbling down its edges stood in front of us, overgrown with radiant green vines. Seagulls lined what was left of the roof, getting a good view of those trudging their way up the path behind us. Following the trail to the peak of Alcatraz Island, we looked back at San Francisco.
The skyscrapers towered above, making a jagged ceiling out of the city. I could see the Embarcadero and Transamerica Pyramid making the rest of the buildings look like mere ants. To my left was the Bay Bridge and to my right, the Golden Gate Bridge. Sailboats cut through the waves, joining the cargo ships across the way. The nesting birds only added to the eye candy, as silhouettes of wings tried their best to compete with the sawtoothed city skyline. If it wasn’t for the tornado-like wind, I could’ve sat and stared at the bay for the rest of my day. However, we had an important site to explore: Prison.
For a sneak peak at our tour inside the prison walls, click here.
The Cell House
Entering the Cell House, a guide handed us a pair of headphones and an electric box that was soon-to-be our self-guided tour. The cells seemed to be never-ending as each and every room we entered was overflowing with metal crates stacked to the ceiling. Peering inside, I could see that each box remained true to the island’s infamous quote:
You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Everything else is a privilege.USP Alcatraz Regulation 5: Privileges
A children-sized bed was pushed up to the left wall, making just enough room for a toilet and sink in the back corner. Two shelves lined the back wall, empty until filled with prisoners’ personal items: Books, paintings, letters, etc. There was absolutely no privacy in any of the cells, as the mates across the hall from you would be able to watch you sit, sleep–even use the restroom. As almost all of the prisoners were transferred after being, as you might say, a problem child in their last prison, you can only imagine the daily drama that occurred.
We followed the hallway of cells toward a large doorway leading us to a new room, much more empty. If you thought the most dangerous place in the Cell House was the blocks filled with inmates, you’d be incorrect. The kitchen housed some of the most menacing weapons on the island: Knives. Multiple attacks and stabbings occurred in this area of Alcatraz after prisoners were granted the so-called privilege of being able to cook for everyone. Even so, Alcatraz was home to some of the best prison food, such as Chili dogs, fried pork chops–even banana pudding. It was so mouth-watering that even the guards and prison staff ate the same meals as the inmates.
As our tour finished up and we headed to the water’s edge to board the ferry back to the mainland, I experienced my own mini-trauma attack of being stuck on Alcatraz Island. The schedule informed us that the next boat back wasn’t for another hour and a half. With the freezing weather, lack of food and pure exhaustion from a full day of travel, being stranded in prison on an island wasn’t exactly a dream-come-true. Despite the beautiful views and amazing cafeteria, I could understand the prisoners who planned elaborate escape routes. There’s no better taste in this world than the taste of freedom.