We arrived to Pier 33 just in time to start boarding the boat. The morning was foggy and a bit wet, but we were still very excited to jump on the boat for the 15-minute ride that was going to take us to the island. Alcatraz, or the Rock as it is known, is only 1 ¼ miles offshore from San Francisco.
On clear days, you can see the city and you can get fabulous views of both bridges, the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate, but yesterday we could only get some peaks of the Transamerica pyramid and Coit Tower. The rest was covered in fog. The fog was not too dense but was pretty low. In fact, we didn’t see Alcatraz until we were a minute or two away from it.
We got off the boat and, after finishing up our coffees at the boat landing, we started to climb up to the main prison to get our audio set for the tour.
I really love the way the Alcatraz tours work. It feels like most touristic places in the U.S. are very rigid and supervised. In Alcatraz, you are given an audio set and you are left alone to explore the prison and the island freely. It is quite fun!
Many people think of Alcatraz as just a prison, but the reality is that the island houses a lot of history in its 22 acres. It is currently managed by the National Park Services but its history dates back to Native American times. In fact, after the prison was closed in 1963, Native American college students took over the island on November 20, 1969. The occupation lasted nearly two years and, today, you can watch a movie about the occupation while visiting the island, and you can also see evidence of the occupation in graffiti paintings in some places in the island. Most of these are writings claiming the island as “Indian territory”, and a land of “peace and freedom.”
Despite the fact that Native Americans had known the island for centuries before the arrival of Europeans, the island got its current name from the Spanish Conquistadores who called it “La Isla de los Alcatraces,” or ”The Island of the Pelicans.” Over the years, the English version “Alcatraz” caught on and is the one used to refer to the island nowadays.
Later on, the island was used as a military fort during the American Civil War, protecting San Francisco from the Confederates. After the war, the island served as a prison to house Civil War prisoners. The fact that it was such a cold place, surrounded by hazardous currents, made Alcatraz an ideal location for a high security prison.
But the Rock is definitely best known for the time it served as a Federal Penitentiary. In 1933, the island officially became a federal prison and, during its 29 years of operation, it housed some of the most infamous prisoners of the time such as Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Mickey Cohen.
Life in Alcatraz sounded pretty grim from the stories told by both the prisoners and the guards in the audio tour. No wonder some prisoners tried to escape. Despite a total of 14 escape attempts, the prison claims that nobody ever successfully escaped Alcatraz.
Today, Alcatraz houses a wonderful museum as well as the oldest lighthouse in the West Coast. During this visit I was also pleasantly surprised by a new program they seem to be promoting or supporting: The Prison University Project, which advocates for the rehabilitation of prisoners. As part of this program, the prison’s dining room has a display of several men’s photographs. Below each man’s photograph is his story. Most of them were convicted for murder and are now free members of society who are actually contributing to their communities in their lives after prison. The exhibit asks a very good question: Once a murderer, always a murderer?
After our boat got back to Pier 33, we walked along the Embarcadero towards Pier 39 to go check out the sea lions. So much to show my mom!!!