Tuesday, October 26, 2010

California Dreamin' - Alcatraz

Break the rules and you go to prison; break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz.

Alcatraz. The very word sends a shiver up the spine. Men who were sent here felt they'd landed on a devil's island, a stony hilltop surrounded by a cold, treacherous sea.
Although only one and a half miles from San Francisco, the tantalizing city might as well have been a million miles away because no one ever escaped from The Rock. Over a 29-year period, from 1934-1963, 36 prisoners tried and only three were never found. (The story of those three became a movie, Escape from Alcatraz, with Clint Eastwood.) As a ranger explained to David and me, if the cold water didn't kill you, the current would make it impossible for you to reach land. Floyd Hamilton successfully escaped and eluded guards by hiding in a cave. Still, since he could not figure out how to get off the island, he finally gave up and broke back into prison. Guards found him huddled on the floor near the same window that, just 24 hours ago, had provided his escape.

A typical cell

Even though it was impossible to escape, the inmates' desire to do so is understandable since this prison provided no amenities whatsoever. The toughest criminals, including Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz), and “Machine Gun” Kelly, were assigned 5 x 9 foot cells and promised only food, shelter and medical care. If they behaved, good behavior might earn them the opportunity to work, paint, receive visits from family members, play music, or visit the library.

Inmate decorated cell with his art.

The prison was closed in 1963, but was taken over by Native Americans from 1969-1971 who claimed that the Treaty of Fort Laramie promised Indians unused federal property. Although they eventually abandoned their nineteen-month siege of Alcatraz, the Native Americans were successful in changing US policy; other unused land was later turned over to the Indian nations.

Throughout its history, whether inmates were trying to escape from it or Native Americans were claiming it as their own, Alcatraz has remained home to plants, birds and harbor seals. Today, it is pleasant to watch the birds soar as you walk the paths where roses, fruit trees, and gardens of perennials bloom knowing that, in a few hours, you can leave this place where so many men suffered agonizing lives. The ferry back to San Francisco takes only fifteen minutes.

Practicalities -
It is advisable to buy your tickets in advance since Alcatraz is an extraordinarily popular attraction and tickets often sell out several days in advance. Also, getting your tickets on-line means you can avoid the very long lines.

You must arrive at Pier 33 a half hour before your tour. Be sure to take a jacket (It is often colder on the wind-swept island than it is in the city.) and water with you.

No comments:

Post a Comment