This is a day we almost learned a hard lesson. When we first planned this trip, I didn't want to book a lot of things ahead of time as I wasn't sure what weather we would be dealing with. Let's face it, who wants to be out on the harbour or on an open tour bus if it's pouring rain. As we checked the weather report on Friday, it showed Saturday would be sunny and then it would start to cloud up by Sunday. Given this prediction, is seemed Saturday would be the best day to take the tour out to Alcatraz. It was a weekend and prime season, so we figured we had better get up early and catch the first boat to be safe.
|Panoramic view taken on boat from Bay Bridge on left, past the Golden Gate to Sausalito on the right.|
|Alcatraz - taken from ferry|
Now with an hour to kill, we headed back to the hotel to get our safe fixed - turns out the batteries were dead - and look up where that Starbucks was on the computer. It was all a waste of time in the end. When we finally got there the line was 25-30 people long. There was no way we would get coffee and make it to the boat on time. Sometimes you just have to laugh.
Alcatraz was recommended to me by several people and they were bang on. We had a beautiful ride over and a nice walk around the island, but it was the audio tour inside the prison that really made the trip worth it. It was narrated by 6 former guards and 6 former prisoners. When they told stories about specific events that happened, their personal experiences made it feel very real. They were there at the time and a part of it, so the prison's history came alive for me. I took lots of pictures inside to help me remember all I learned.
It all starts with long cell block corriders like in the image above. Cells are along the right and left and 3 tiers high. It was all very metallic and concrete, so the din must have been constant. A guard would enter the cell block and then, to prevent the possibility of escape, immediately tie their keys to a chord that was raised by a guard on a safe walkway above. If you look at the image on the right carefully, you can just see where the keys are hanging from the chord. This had to be visually hard for the prisoners desperate to get out of there.
The cell blocks were not warm appealing places, they were bare bones and ugly. When prisoners first arrived they were allowed nothing in their cell in terms of decorations. As you earned points for good behavior, you earned privileges. That would include having things in your cell to do time-passing activites such a painting like the inmate above right.
The opportunity to have visitors kept many in line, but I didn't get the impression it happened often. Many prisoners shared that visitors were not that common as even getting to the island was complicated. Just look at that small, uninviting window. Totally inadequate in my mind for 2 people to connect. Never a chance to even touch a loved one. On the right above is the former control room for the prison.
For those who could not conform, there was solitary confinements. The cells look bigger and nicer, but they had a nasty feature. The guards could close all the doors and shut the light off leaving you in utter darkness. While this was supposedly against regulations, it happened. One former prisoner shared to pass the time in the darkness and keep from going crazy, he would toss a button, search until he found it, then toss it again and again. It was the only thing he could think to do without any light.
Eating was another distraction, although not always a happy one. You can see how bleak the cafeteria is on the left. The kitchen was actually large and fairly well laid out. My favourite story from this part of the audio tour was the spaghetti fiasco. The spaghetti was originally quite good but over time deteriorated to the point the prisoners were not happy. One finally decided the next time it was served the tables would turn over. Sure enough, the prisoners started to create havoc but it was quickly quelled. One guard slowly broke 3 windows one after another to get there attention and then loudly cocked his gun. Every single prisoner knew that sound and one and all immediately stopped and at the signal, returned to their cells.
Every prison has had their escape attempts and the sheer creativity of the prisoners is astounding. Alcatraz is listed as having no successful escape attempts, but no one is really sure as there were a couple of prisoners who were never found. They are assumed dead. Surrounded by very cold water is the number one defense. One prisoner who actually managed the swim to shore was found clinging to a rock along the far shoreline in serious hypothermia. The couple never found supposedly left the island in a small boat created from a raincoat.
The above photos show a homemade bar spreader on the left. The middle and right photos illustrate how some prisoners supposedly escaped their dells. They removed the toilet from the wall and supposedly chipped away the concrete with a stolen metal spoon and crawled out. Other prisoners question how they could first of all carve concrete with a kitchen spoon, and secondly do it without the guards finding out. It would be a slow and loud process.
During one escape that escalated into a standoff, the prisoners were holed up in a specific area of the cell block. A hole was drilling in the roof above them and a grenade dropped in. You can still see the hole in the roof and the scarring on the floor from the blast.
After we finished the audio tour we walked around the outside. It really quite beautiful. There were decaying buildings that formerly housed all those working on the island. Administrators, guards and their families resided here. There is a large group of volunteers who maintain the gardens you see. I also loved seeing how nature foudn a toe hold on it's own in the most unlikely places, such as the small bit of foliage growing out of a drain hole for rain water in the brick wall below.
And so ended day 2 of our mini-trip to San Francisco!