Taking a tour of Alcatraz Island and the Alcatraz Penitentiary

Alcatraz Island | San Francisco

I was in San Francisco for the Apple Developers Conference along with a bunch of university mates from Singapore. Before the conference got underway, we found time for a visit to Alcatraz Island, a popular attraction in San Francisco. Tickets can be purchased from Alcatraz Cruises and the ferry picks passengers up at Pier 33 at Fisherman’s Wharf.

Alcatraz Penitentiary | San FranciscoAlcatraz Island, casually known as The Rock, operated as a federal penitentiary for three decades starting from 1934. It was a maximum-security prison that housed notorious criminals like Al Capone. Despite multiple attempts by inmates to escape, none were successful due to the cold waters and strong currents of the San Francisco Bay. Of the 36 prisoners who attempted to escape, two drowned and five were “missing and presumed drowned”.

The island is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which also includes sites such as Fort Mason and Presidio on the mainland. Alcatraz was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1986 and looking around the prison grounds, it feels like not much has changed since then. There are holes in fences and barbed wire is torn or carelessly strewn about. Several buildings lie in ruins due to damage from fire during a Native American occupation of the island. And once you step out of the prison buildings, you’ll be hard pressed to find a spot that hasn’t been splattered with seagull droppings.

Alcatraz Penitentiary | San Francisco

The location of Alcatraz Island offers an unparalleled-360° view of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. From inside the prison, you get glimpses of downtown San Francisco. What a depressing sight it must have been for the inmates to be so close to the outside world yet separated by 2.4 km (1.5 miles) of water.

View of San Francisco from Alcatraz

The visit to Alcatraz includes an audio tour as you view the prison cells. The narration is as vivid and realistic as it gets – the voices you will hear belong to actual officers and inmates who once worked or served time at Alcatraz. Events such as riots, escape attempts and solitary confinements are talked about with great detail. This infamous jailhouse witnessed three tumultuous decades and the audio tour experience is both surreal and spine-tingling.

Alcatraz Penitentiary | San Francisco

Inside the Alcatraz Penitentiary cell | San FranciscoThe penitentiary is divided into several cellblocks and also comprises the warden’s office, the library and a visitation room. Other buildings on the island include the kitchen, dining hall, Warden’s House and Officers Club. The picture on the left shows a prison cell, which ironically, seems too good to be true. It gives the impression of a sterile, comfortable and well-equipped prison cell – a false illusion that is unlikely to be lost on visitors.

As we neared the end of our visit, Darwin Coon was seated in the souvenir shop promoting his book “Alcatraz: the True End of the Line” and signing autographs. The former inmate often scribbled AZ1422, his prison number, alongside his signature; a nod to his infamy and perhaps, a lifelong reminder of the four years he spent at Alcatraz. In recent years, he was a frequent sighting on the island, speaking to tourists and promoting his book.

Darwin Coon at Alcatraz Island | San Francisco

Earlier in his life, Darwin Coon had spent a number of years in various prisons across America for bank robbery and even successfully escaped from one in Nevada. During his four years at Alcatraz, he spent 29 days in solitary confinement and he said the experience changed him forever. It was to be his last stint in reform.

Coon passed away in 2009.

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