Escape to Alcatraz

The TV show is fictional, but the

jail cells are real

I happened to flip to an episode of Alcatraz the other night just as an inmate was using his cell wall for a punching bag. I recognized the narrow 9’x 5’ cell in this notorious penitentiary, but it was definitely not the cell I was in.

Mine was wider. It was empty. And the sliding door was solid.

This was our second attempt to escape to Alcatraz Island while in San Francisco, having failed to book in advance the first time. My husband and I were on a self-guided audio tour, and the 300 or so single-man cells, found in the C- and B-Blocks, featured a cot, shelf, toilet, sink and two-tone walls. They looked comfy compared to the one I would enter. 

single man cells in B- and C-Blocks
The cellhouse was dead quiet as 4,000 of us shuffled along in hypnotic silence, obeying the commanding voices inside our headsets to stop, look and listen. After stopping to look up at the big clock at Times Square, we continued past the rows of identical cells along wide corridors called Michigan Avenue and Park Avenue.

It was summertime but the air inside was chilly. Or maybe the hairs on my arms were flinching from the background shouting and clanging of cell doors that punctuated the gravelly voices of former prisoners and correctional officers who were taking turns narrating life in this legendary prison.

Only the toughest of guards were hired to control the 1,500 convicts evicted from other prison suites across the States. Al ‘Scarface’ Capone spent 4.5 years here and Robert ‘the Birdman’ Stroud settled in for a leisurely17 years, six of them in segregation on D-Block. 

Fort Alcatraz was renamed Alcatraz Island in 1907. Others called it America's Devil Island.

The Rock sits 1.5 miles from the streets of San Francisco. It’s where the first lighthouse on the West Coast was built in 1854, and it served as the first fort and military prison on the coast during the Civil War. Alcatraz became a federal penn in 1934 during the Great Depression and the Prohibition era. It was shut down by RFK in 1963 and re-opened to the public in 1973.

The voices were leading us down Sunset Strip, in the dreaded D-Block, where only the nastiest of the nasty were sent to the hole for 14 days of quiet reflection. By the time they invited us to enter one of the isolation cells, I could only bring myself to place one foot inside. I couldn’t shake the notion that, even after 1.7 million visitors a year would step past that solid green electric door, it was somehow going to malfunction and automatically grind shut once I crossed the threshold.

cold cement floors greeted unmanagable inmates placed in isolation in the D-Block
Blocking the doorway, I took no mind of the shadowy figures already deep inside and they left me to my jittery ways and shutterbug husband who was motioning me to let go of the door and step inside. Turns out the best shot was me standing right where I was, in the daylight, beside the cell door.

It was while I was facing the corridor from my cell that I noticed the rooms along this guest wing offered a decent view of the city, no doubt taunting the unruly residents with the happier sounds of a bustling harbour and shimmering glow from the skyline at night.

From this window the mainland did look close, but as the 36 who tried to escape discovered, it’s merely the shortest route to heaven, or hell as it were. No death by shark, we overheard a national park ranger correcting this rumour for what must have been the umpteenth time in his tour guide career. Prisoners drown from exposure to freezing water and treacherous currents caused by fast-moving tide waters that whirlpool around the island. (So not a playground for dolphins, either.)

On this sunny July day, the water temperature is a bone-chilling 49F. Walking down the path from the top of the island, warmed by the sun and serenaded by luscious and beautifully-tended plants along the way, I could understand why this 22-acre island and bird sanctuary, once described as an oyster in the bay, was such a pearl of a place to grow up. Children whose parents worked at the prison said living on the Rock beneath the country’s most hardened criminals was really quite fun. Who else got to take a boat to school every day?

Since Alcatraz premiered in 2012, the U.S. National Parks Service has put a sign up on the island to remind visitors the TV series is fictional. But the cells are real.

Alcatraz Island Tours depart daily from Pier 33
Choose from self-guided, ranger lead or night tours
415-981-ROCK (7625)
Make reservations in advance during peak season May through November
Night tours are very popular and should be booked months in advance, especially Halloween Eve

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