When you first approach Alcatraz Island, everything about this iconic rock appears in the very same way as in the movies.
With waves crashing violently against the shore and the famous prison looming large above it on the skyline, this is one of the few moments which can overshadow even the most cinematic scene. In many ways, we could call this an old fashioned adventure or an experience to remember but the truth is, neither of these words can do it enough justice.
Brief History of Alcatraz
Originally built as a maximum security penitentiary, Alcatraz was first utilized in the mid-1800 for military purposes until 1934 when the prison would become the home for some of the most infamous gangsters of all time.
Although located just a short distance from the coastline of San Francisco, many escape attempts were foiled and several disappearances left unsolved.
While guards attest to these prisoners falling prey to sharks in the Bay area, it was more likely the punishingly cold waters to which they fell, victim.
At the same time, it must also be realized that there were more than just prisoners living on the island. Children were taken to school on the mainland each morning, but for the most part, Alcatraz was also home to the prisoner guards and their families.
In fact, there was even a movie theater here and several recreational facilities, but the logic in this regard seems rather strange in the modern day.
Escape-Proof and Desolate
The prison was coined as being “escape proof,” and when you proceed through the front entrance of Alcatraz, the reason for this is quite clear. Featuring an imposing stone exterior, even the walls must have seemed impossible to bypass. Once inside, an audio guide interrupts one’s thoughts as stories from prison guards and ex-inmates take over.
Alcatraz is a three-story building with four separate cell blocks – A, B, C and D. Aside from the wardens quarters and a library, the dining room was the most commonly used part of the prison where prison staff put meals together, and inmates would congregate to eat. Interestingly, each corridor is named after a famous street such as Michigan Ave or Broadway. That being said, there is no more warmth in prison other than these thoughts, and the cells are entirely bleak.
Alcatraz Hospital Ward.Alcatraz History
Prisoners lived by very primitive means in Alcatraz with shelter, food, medical care, and clothing the only rights. However, through good behavior, it was possible for them to enjoy some special activities such as a visit to the library.
As for the cell, there is little to get excited about other than a hard bed and a small desk.
Experiencing the Essence of Alcatraz
When it comes to the process of travel, it must be said that the words “experience” or “adventure” are mostly overused. For this reason, we can often feel desensitized to such descriptions, and this can certainly be the case with a day tour.
With that said, it must also be known that Alcatraz is far from an exaggeration and every bit as exciting as in the movies.
Listening to the clicking sound of shoes in D-Block, there is a distinct feeling in the penitentiary that the past is still alive. Marveling at the solitary cells, it can feel dark and lonely, even with the doors open.
Recounting the many stories which took place, the audio of prison guards is haunting yet very human in a sense that you understand this was one of the darkest places for a human mind.
Home to Al Capone and many other notorious gangsters, murders and convicts; every cell and corridor feels different as the experience of Alcatraz continues to evoke unusual emotions from the visitor.
As already mentioned, many failed escape attempts took place here, and it is said that the number of prisoners involved exceeds forty.
More than twenty of these were caught, several were shot and it is also thought that two drowned once they entered the Bay area. While there is no proof that these two men did in fact drown, there is still reason to believe that not a single soul has ever managed to escape Alcatraz.
Once outside in the recreational area, the visitor is provided a brief glimpse into the life of a prisoner, for this is the only moment when you can see the sky. Famous movies such as “The Shawshank Redemption” or “The Rock” come to mind but regardless, the bleakness of this moment symbolizes the dark times which occurred on the island. You are free to walk around at this point and indeed, for the entire duration of the tour but in most instances, the encounter is so fascinating that this time is never enough.
Alcatraz prison menu. Open Culture
Is Alcatraz A Place Or An Experience?
When Alcatraz Prison closed back in 1963, it had operated for more than twenty-eight years. It was simply too expensive to operate for the government with the cost far exceeding that of a standard prison on the mainland. You will find the reasons for this not being a sustainable location in the violent waves as the crash against the rocks or the distant sound of cars in San Francisco City, for the sheer remoteness of the island made the cost of transportation exceedingly high.
In fact, this is another take-away from life on Alcatraz and a very haunting thought to those who have never entered a prison. Most ex-inmates from Alcatraz will recount their memories of New Year Celebrations, Christmas and the Fourth of July. It may seem like a pretty bleak time to be sitting in a prison cell with nothing but four walls and a desk but the reason for their memories is intriguing, to say the least.
After all, these were the moments when they could hear the joy, celebrations, and sounds of freedom drifting across from the mainland – something many of them would never experience again.
It’s true – the words “experience” and “adventure” are overused and often inappropriate, but make no mistake, experiencing an eye-opening encounter on Alcatraz is anything but an exaggeration.
The battle of Alactraz. Sword and Scale
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Feature image Open Culture