Alcatraz, an island with a prison

Alcatraz Prison - World to Explore Blog San Francisco California Estados Unidos da América Viagem

Located in the heart of San Francisco Bay, just over a mile (about 2 kilometers) from the city’s coastline, Alcatraz Island has been used for various purposes: as a fortress, a lighthouse, and, as it is most famously known, as a federal maximum-security prison. Alcatraz Island was named by Spanish explorers (Isla de los Alcatraces), and its name pays homage to the bird of the same name, a type of seagull/pelican that is quite common on the island. The initial owner of the island was Carlos Gonzalez Rodriguez, who sold it to the military officer John Charles Frémont, and it eventually became property of the United States after the Mexican-American War in 1848, along with the territory of the state of California. It was during the American Gold Rush that the United States government began developing the island, considering various possible uses for it.

With the exponential growth of the population in the city and due to the high maritime traffic in the bay, a lighthouse and a fortification were eventually built on Alcatraz Island. However, years later, around 1864, the American Civil War led to advancements in military technology. From that point on, the island began to become obsolete, losing all interest by 1907.

Alcatraz Prison

Alcatraz was used as a prison practically from the beginning due to the isolation created by the cold and strong currents of San Francisco Bay. In the year 1859, 11 soldiers convicted of serious crimes were confined to the island, and during the American Civil War (1861 to 1865), Alcatraz was also used to house war prisoners convicted of desertion, theft, assault, rape, and murder.

After the island ceased to be used as a fort, the United States Department of Justice began adapting the island for modernized buildings and increased security, opening its doors in 1934 as a federal maximum-security prison. Due to its high security and the location of the island in the cold and strong currents of San Francisco Bay, prison staff believed that Alcatraz was escape-proof and the best prison in America.

Over the nearly 30 years that the prison operated, it housed approximately 1,500 prisoners. During that time, 36 people attempted to escape, 23 were captured, 6 were killed by authorities, and 4 drowned. Only 3 men (Frank Morris and the brothers John and Clarence Anglin) remained missing, and their whereabouts are unknown in what is considered the largest escape from Alcatraz. The escape was planned for seven months, during which holes were dug to access the ventilation ducts in the cell walls using spoons and concealed using cardboard grille covers. The protective bar was cut with an object stolen from the prison’s music room, and it is believed that they jumped over a barbed wire fence into the sea to reach the makeshift raincoat-made boats. The authorities only discovered their escape during the morning prisoner count the next day. It is uncertain what happened to the fugitives and whether they successfully escaped with their lives.

There were indeed several criminals who were at Alcatraz, but the most well-known was Al Capone, an Italian-American gangster who led a criminal organization and was considered the kingpin of American mafia. In March 1963, following what was considered the largest escape from Alcatraz, the prison was closed because, according to the government, the maintenance costs were too high, and there were already more modern and efficient federal prisons. The logistics of Alcatraz and the associated costs were challenging for the prison staff. Guards and other employees were required to live on the island in separate quarters from the main prison building, as were their families. Food and other personal necessities were brought by boat on a weekly basis to supply the homes.

After the prison closed its doors, Alcatraz underwent various studies by the United States government to determine its future. At one point, there was even consideration of turning it into a space-themed amusement park due to the Apollo 11 mission. In 1973, nearly 10 years later, the island was designated as a US National Park, and the prison area was opened to the public for tourism and visitation.

Prices and Where to Buy It

To visit Alcatraz prison, it’s necessary to purchase tickets in advance on the official website. There are tickets available for daytime and nighttime visits. The prices for the visit range from $53 to $65 and include the boat ride to the island and the prison tour itself with an audio guide. When purchasing tickets, you need to select a departure time for the boat to the island (the return trip can be at any time during the day), and the complete visit takes approximately 2 to 3 hours.

Boat Trip

We chose to visit Alcatraz early in the morning on our first full day in San Francisco. We arrived at Pier 33, where you catch the boat to the island, around 8:15 am to catch the first morning boat at 8:40 am. It’s advisable to arrive with some advance to validate the ticket and start boarding. The boat trip to Alcatraz Island takes about 15 to 20 minutes. The boat that makes this crossing is known as the Alcatraz Clipper and operates on a hybrid system. It has a capacity for about 700 people and offers both indoor and outdoor seating, as well as a small bar where you can purchase snacks and light meals.

Island Arrival

After disembarking on the island, there are several guides, called rangers, providing directions and sharing the history of Alcatraz Island and the prison. On one hand, it’s worthwhile to listen to them, but on the other hand, it’s an opportunity to start walking around and disperse from the crowds that arrived on the same boat as us. Right at the entrance of the island, there is an area where you can purchase an informative map of the main points of interest for a nominal cost, I believe it’s $1.

The entrance to the main Alcatraz prison building is about 400 meters from the disembarkation area, and it’s a relatively uphill walk. Along this path, you can enjoy some beautiful views of the surrounding area and pass by important island buildings, such as the morgue, the guard tower, the sally port (entrance and exit control area), among others.

Visit to the Prison Building

The visit to this, one of the most important prisons in the world, begins in the bathroom area where the prisoners used to relieve themselves and shower. It’s a spacious area without intermediate walls where the showers were right in the center of the bathroom, and prisoners had no privacy. Unlike other prisons, the shower water was always very hot to deter any escape plans by the prisoners, who would experience a thermal shock upon coming into contact with the cold waters of San Francisco Bay.

After the visit to the bathroom area, visitors are provided with the audio guide, and I can tell you it’s well worth it! I’m usually one of those people who skip audio guides because I don’t have much patience to stand still and listen to someone talk. However, the Alcatraz Prison audio guide is truly worthwhile because it’s concise and tells the stories that unfolded in that building in a very emotive way, based on the accounts of the guards and some prisoners.

Throughout the visit to the prison building, you pass through entire corridors filled with cells where the prisoners lived or, in some cases, survived. When it was completed in 1912, the prison building was the largest steel-reinforced concrete structure in the world, and the project was the brainchild of Major Reuben B. Turner, a civil engineer who also served as the first warden of Alcatraz Prison. Over the years of its operation, the prison underwent improvements, and security was increased to prevent any kind of escape.

Taking the tour of the prison building following the audio guide’s route and instructions will take about 1 hour, and it provides an incredible and chilling insight into what happened in the prison. After finishing the tour, we also visited the Lighthouse area, where you can enjoy beautiful views of the city center of San Francisco. Then, we returned to the harbor area at a brisk pace to catch the 10:30 am return boat.

Return Journey

Before entering the main prison building, there is an informative sign about the schedule for return boats, allowing visitors to manage their visit time to catch a specific boat. The return boat journey takes about 15 to 20 minutes as well, and by chance, on the way back, we had more time because the weather was much more pleasant, and we had even more beautiful views than on the way to the island.

In conclusion, visiting Alcatraz Island and the prison is practically a must for anyone visiting San Francisco, as it is one of the city’s main attractions and holds significant historical importance. For those visiting the city, it’s important to plan ahead and purchase tickets in advance since it has limited capacity (restricted to the boats that make the crossing). To understand the importance of planning, if we hadn’t bought tickets in advance, we wouldn’t have been able to visit the prison because there were only tickets available for the following week.

Alcatraz is surreal and a visit that is truly worth it! I hope I’ve been able to convey to you a bit of what the visit was like and have sparked your interest in visiting this prison. Don’t forget to keep visiting the blog, and you can also stay updated on the blog’s Instagram page for more updates.

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