Alcatraz is one of the world’s most notorious holding pens. When you visit, book the popular night tour and watch the sun set over ‘The Rock’, as it’s famously monikered, then tour the darkened cell house for maximum creep factor.
Even before your ferry arrives on the Rock, you’ll start plotting your getaway. The obvious gambit is laundry duty, and sneaking out in a load of sheets. But then what? If you’re caught you’ll get sent to D-Block solitary, a tiny cube where days are marked by a light shaft traveling across the wall – or you might be interrogated using techniques only alluded to in the otherwise thorough Alcatraz audio tour, with first-hand accounts by prison guards and prisoners of the Rock.
Pause in the library to check out the books the average prisoner read at a rate of 75 to 100 per year – though none of the books could have references to crime, violence or sex. Tense 20-minute meals were served under armed guard in the mess hall, where no spoon was left unaccounted for and a sign ordered prisoners: 'Take all that you wish – eat all that you take.' If you dare, step inside a cell and take off your headphones for a moment, and listen to the sound of carefree city life travelling 1.25 miles across the water.
This is the torment that made perilous prison breaks and flying leaps into riptides worth the risk, from the 19th-century founding of the prison to hold Civil War deserters and Native American dissidents.
In 1934, the Federal Bureau of Prisons took over Alcatraz to house high-profile criminals like Chicago crime boss Al 'Scarface' Capone, Harlem poet-mafioso 'Bumpy' Johnson, and Morton Sobell, found guilty of Soviet espionage with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Alcatraz was considered escape-proof, but in 1962 the Anglin brothers and Frank Morris disappeared on a raft. Since ferrying necessities cost more than putting up prisoners at the Ritz, it was Bobby Kennedy that officially ordered its closure in 1963.
Outside the cell block, you’ll notice faint graffiti on the water tower that reads 'This is Indian Land'. This declaration was made by Native American activists, whose request to turn the closed prison island into a Native American study centre was repeatedly turned down in the 1960s.
Finally, on the eve of Thanksgiving, 1969, 79 Native American activists broke a Coast Guard blockade and took over Alcatraz in protest of the violation of treaties and appropriation of lands from 106 Native groups. Over the next 19 months, some 5600 Native Americans visited the occupied island, sparking Native American activism nationwide. Before the FBI seized the island in 1971, public support pressured President Richard Nixon to restore Native territory and strengthen self-rule for Native nations.
The protest is commemorated in 'Red Power' graffiti found throughout Alcatraz and at the dockside processing centre, where an award-winning documentary featuring protesters’ first-hand accounts is screened in a small side room.
This article was originally published in July 2010. This article was refreshed in August 2012.
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