All images © Spiral Light Photography
Alcatraz prison was once the toughest prison in the U.S. Federal Penitentiary system. The Rock, as it had been nicknamed was considered escape-proof, being housed on Alcatraz Island, approximately 2 kilometers off of the coast of San Francisco. It’s notoriety has always facinated me, including the infamous inmates it once housed. Al Capone, Whitey Bulger, Machine Gun Kelly and Robert Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz) all called this place home. The prison operated for 29 years until 1963 when it was shut down due to high operating costs, and of course the famous of escape of John and Clarence Anglin and Frank Morris. The escape was depicted in the movie Escape From Alcatraz, starring Clint Eastwood.
I decided to take the night tour of Alcatraz Island as I wanted to see what this place was like after dark. (I’ve always been a fan of anything a little spooky). The ferry boat left San Francisco Bay in the late afternoon. The sun was shining, and I was able to get some clear photographs of the city skyline. However, after about 10 or 15 minutes, a thick fog enveloped the boat. I could no longer see either the San Francisco coastline or Alcatraz Island. I remember a lone seagull that seemed to be floating above our boat. Maybe it was guiding us on our way, or maybe it was warning us to stay away!
Alcatraz Island on a clear day.
Alcatraz Island shrouded in fog.
As we got closer to the island, the prison came into view. The first thing I noticed was the water tower sitting like a desolate beacon. Soon we were pulling up to the dock and the ominous guard tower came into view. You can still see the spotlights that would shine over the grounds. It’s intimidating to imagine guards with machine guns pointing at the newly arrived prisoners. At the dock is the sign “welcoming” you to the United States Penitentiary. You can still see the graffiti from the nineteen month occupation by the American Indians who called themselves Indians of All Tribes (IOAT). After the prison was closed, this group decided that the island should be returned to the Native people. You can read more about it here. Occupation Of Alcatraz
The water tower comes into view.
Post Exchange/Officers Club.
“Welcome” sign at the dock.
After disembarking, we met with our guide who walked us up to the prison. We were told this is the exact same route that prisoners would take after arriving on the island. The guide also took the time to point out the exterior pipe that Clint Eastwood shimmied down in the movie! Once arriving in the prison building we were given audio guides and allowed to explore on our own. The cell house was fascinating! We were directed to the cell of Frank Morris where a paper mache head rests under the covers. This is how he and the Anglin brothers were able to make their escape during the night without alerting the guards to their disappearance. The prison also houses a lot of battle scars, most notably from the Battle of Alcatraz in 1946. This was when six prisoners broke into the gun gallery and took nine guards hostage. You can still see the shrapnel marks from the three day seige which sadly ended with all hostages being shot. Your can read more about it here. Battle Of Alcatraz. At the end of one of the cell blocks is the kitchen. Since inmates worked in the kitchen, the knife cupboard had the shapes of all knives painted black. That way the guards would always know if one went “missing”.
A typical cell.
The famous paper mache head.
The kitchen with knife cupboard visible.
At the end of the tour, we all made our way outside to catch the ferry back to San Francisco. Since this was the last ferry departing the island for the night, no one wanted to be late! It had gotten dark, and a light rain had started to fall. As I walked past the remains of the Warden’s house, I got a real sense of how desolate this island is. Maybe it was the lack of inhabitants, or the crumbling buildings. Maybe it was the lingering ghosts. All I know is that I’m glad that my short time on this island was that of a tourist and nothing more!
Read more about Alcatraz Island and Alcatraz Penitentiary here.