Few prisons in the world will have as many suitors. Moments after securing ours, tickets were sold out at least until the end of the following month, and anyone who got them in high season was sentenced to several hours in the blazing sun in the long queue at Pier 33.
These days, there are nearly 1.5 million passengers a year on the ferry from Fisherman Wharf to San Francisco towards the island.
The same ones who scrutinize it from end to end in space and time, supported by a trustworthy soundtrack that recreates past environments and, cell after cell, narrates the dramatic and curious episodes that took place there.
Alcatraz Island's Unusual Colonial Past
The Rock was not always a fascinating place. The first European to discover it, Spaniard Juan Manuel de Ayala was exploring the surrounding bay when he came across an uninhabited island full of pelicans.
Not very enthusiastic, the navigator limited himself to mapping it and, using his archaic Castilian, baptized it as “Isla de Los Carcasses”, from the Arabic term al-Qatras that defined sea eagle.
From 1775 onwards, except for the construction of a lighthouse and some change of ownership, nothing changed on the island. Around, on the contrary, California flowed from the Spanish crown to the newly declared independent Mexican territory and, shortly thereafter, was bought by the United States from Mexico, under the Treaty of Guadeloupe-Hidalgo which, in 1848, put an end to the conflict between the two countries.
Coincidence or perhaps not, the following year the California gold rush was unleashed and the US army decided to fortify and arm the island to defend the San Francisco bay and the towns that were outlined from possible incursions.
But the enemy conspired within the new nation and proved powerful when the South opposed the North, giving rise, in 1861, to the American Civil War. The one hundred and five cannons installed never fired, but it was during this conflict that Alcatraz first functioned as a prison when it held Confederate supporters and soldiers.
The war ended five years later. The fortifications and installed artillery were already obsolete and, despite modernization efforts, the army decided that the island should be used for detention rather than coastal defense.
In 1907, due to the damage caused to other prisons by the earthquake in San Francisco, Alcatraz welcomed the first civilian convicts.
Journey Through the Treacherous Waters of San Francisco Bay
The ferry goes against the tide and, along the 2.4 km of the trip, it reveals the power of the currents that the authorities trusted to inhibit leakage, reinforced by the temperature of the water and by the sharks.
As in the early days of Alcatraz's history, flocks of pelicans lined up perfectly across the sky. And, formed over the sub-arctic waters of the Pacific Ocean, the fog gradually invades the San Francisco bay, covering first the island and then the lowest buildings in the metropolis.
After disembarking, we come across a watchtower and, over the high heart of the Rock, with its huge concrete prison that we start by bypassing and which we only later enter.
Until 1963, when it was decommissioned, Alcatraz housed prisoners and conscientious objectors from various wars and criminals of all kinds including Al Capone and other guys with bad souls and damning names.
The Existence or Non-existence of Successful Escapes from Alcatraz
These were the cases of Robert Franklin Stroud – The Birdman – who were missed by his birds – Alvin “Creepy karpis” Karpowicz, who was involved in constant fights and set the record for staying on the island (over 26 years) and George “Machine Gun” Kelly who irritated his comrades by bragging about crimes he had not committed but was considered a model prisoner.
Authorities dispute that, during the penitentiary's 29 years of operation, no one had been able to escape. According to their numbers, 14 attempts were made involving 36 men. Two of them repeated the effort. Twenty-three were caught, six shot and three lost at sea and never found again.
A year before the prison closed, these last three, Frank Morris, John Anglin and brother Clarence Anglin staged an elaborate escape using an inflatable raft made of waterproof coats. Items of his, including part of the raft, were later detected on nearby Angel Island.
The official report stated that they had drowned but several theories, including that of the popular TV show Mythbusters, argue that the evasion may have been consummated.
The Cells, the Courtyard and the Inevitable Deactivation
We walked through the shadowy corridors and an endless sequence of tiny, spartan cells. We also took a look at the cafeteria, and the dressing room where items of clothing and utensils were kept, respecting the original arrangement.
In all of them, we noticed the complexity of the prison's operation. And, accordingly, also the reasons for its deactivation.
All in all, around 1962, the pragmatic US authorities reached an elementary conclusion. In Alcatraz, each prisoner cost the state ten dollars a day. This value far exceeded that of other prisons, such as Atlanta, where you stayed for three dollars.
But the financial losses were added to the environmental ones, which were increasingly contested. Sewers released daily into the San Francisco Bay the pollution produced by 250 prisoners and the families of 60 resident employees.
None of these problems were anticipated in Marion, Illinois, where, in 1963, the continental and conventional prison that replaced Alcatraz was inaugurated.
The Unexpected Indian Occupation of Alcatraz
"Indians Welcome”. Though worn, the message painted in red on the cement intrigues less knowledgeable visitors and introduces the next chapter into Alcatraz's existence. From the end of 1969, a group of North American Indians from different tribes occupied the island, complaining that, before the settlers' invasion, it had long been used as a spiritual retreat by the Ohlone ethnicity.
The group proposed to build a native educational, ecological and cultural center there and broke a Coast Guard blockade to impose its will. Over the next 19 months, some 5600 North American Indians reinforced the occupied island, which again proved to be an important symbol.
Public opinion pressured Richard Nixon to restore significant part of the native US territory as well as its self-governance. But the indigenous people were not satisfied with the conquest.
Since 1975, they have held a counter-Thanksgiving Day in Alcatraz every Thanksgiving dawn to demonstrate their determination to reverse the course of US colonial history. The government eventually regained control of the island, which it turned into a national park.
Hollywood was already exploring the atmosphere of mystery and drama that surrounded it long before all this commotion. Several box office hits increased their popularity, cases of “The Alcatraz Fugitives” starring Clint Eastwood and the hyper-produced “The Rock”, with Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery.
This explains the current attraction of millions of innocent people to this strange ex-prison.