If you love watching movies, especially the ones based on true stories, actual historical places, or real people (those whose names became popular either because of their good deeds or their notoriety), then you have probably seen “The Rock” and “Escape from Alcatraz”. Both movies were set in the infamous Alcatraz Island, a small island located in the San Francisco Bay, about 1.5 miles offshore from San Francisco. Because of its topography and its size, the island was aptly nicknamed The Rock.
A tour of the island will bring you face-to-face with the site of the first lighthouse and US-built military fortification on the West Coast. In 1868, the entire island (with some areas converted into housing rows) became a military prison. Later on, The Rock became a federal penitentiary (1933-1963) that was off-limits to the public. Then, in 1964 and 1969-1971, a group of Aboriginal peoples (Indians of All Tribes) from San Francisco who were trying to save themselves from Native activism marred by public protests (they were being terminated by federal policy) sought safety on the island and stayed there for 18 months. This move by the Indians of All Tribes was monumental for it sparked a change in the federal policy towards American Indians.
It was only in 1972 when Alcatraz Island became a national recreation area, the justifiably popular tourist attraction that it is now (one of many prisons to become so), and to this day, it continues to draw in thousands of tourists, year in and year out.
The allure of the area extends far beyond the walls of the prison, although the same never fail to mesmerize tourists. The Rock itself exudes a unique appeal – the island is rugged and exceptionally beautiful at the same time, with gardens, tide pools, and bird colonies that will surely leave visitors breathless. Given that it right smack in the middle of San Francisco Bay, it offers an unparalleled view of the city.
It is worth noting that only inmates who posed greatest threats of violence and escape were sent to Alcatraz, which is considered a maximum-security prison. There, inmates were housed one man to a cell. Unlike inmates at other prisons who could spend their days out of their cells to do mandatory work programs, attend education classes, or enjoy recreational activities, Alcatraz inmates had to earn time out from their cells through good behavior.
There is a cell house audio tour being offered, which is a self-guided tour featuring narration of former inmates and guards. You’d get a glimpse into the lives of the most notorious federal inmates in history such as:
Alphonse “Al” Capone – also known as “Scarface”, he was the brutal kingpin of the Chicago underworld. He was incarcerated because of federal charges of tax evasion.
James Lucas – he tried to kill Al Capone by stabbing him in the shower.
George “Machine Gun” Kelly – a notorious kidnapper.
Floyd Hamilton – Bonnie and Clyde’s accomplice and noted bank robber.
Arthur “Doc” Barker and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis – both are members of the infamous Ma Barker Gang.
Roy Gardner – last of the “Old West” train robbers.
Morton Sobell – convicted in the Rosenberg espionage case
Robert Stroud – the Birdman of Alcatraz and one of the most notorious criminals in American history. He was depicted as a kindly bird lover in the movie “The Birdman of Alcatraz” where Burt Lancaster played his part, but in reality, he was a homicidal sociopath whom officers in Alcatraz likened to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
You’ll also see the recreation yard (or at least, part of what’s left of it), where inmates played their favorite sport of softball during their few hours of yard time on weekends. There are collections of objects made by notorious inmates, historic photographs and documents, escape materials, and inmate artwork, as well as items used by officers, including correctional materials, when Alcatraz was a federal penitentiary from 1934-1963; military prison period materials from 1859-1934; and the American Indian occupation of 1969 -1971.
Obviously, there is a wealth of knowledge and history waiting for tourists at Alcatraz Island. The rich history of the place makes it one of the most popular tourist attractions ever, and it surely deserves a spot in your list of must-visit places.