Back in 2016, on my road trip of California, I decided to visit Alcatraz, the prison on the rock, in San Francisco Bay.
Alcatraz Prison is 1.25 miles away from the shore of the city, and prisoners that were kept in Alcatraz would regularly glimpse and even hear parties and life across the water.
Now a national historic landmark, Alcatraz Island was built with a lighthouse, military fortifications, military prison and eventually a federal prison. On site of the rock, which is regularly hit with splashing water, were houses for the prison guards family.
At one point, native Americans lived on the island as part of their protests. You can still see their graffiti on the walls outside.
By day, Alcatraz Prison is eerie. By night, it’s atmospheric. You can see the lights glimmering back at the bay, and almost imagine what prisoners may have seen when confined to this 22 acre land.
To reach the island, you take a ferry from Pier 33 in Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco. It takes about 15-20 minutes to arrive. As you sail, you are given a breathtaking view of the Golden Gate Bridge. The rock that the prison sits on has become a natural seabird colony, as well as natural rock pools.
Arriving at Alcatraz, you can tour the prison, walking past the cells once belonging to Al Capone. You can also visit the shower rooms, dining hall and the ruins of the Wardens House.
Other famous inmates include Robert Franklin Stroud, known as ‘the Birdman of Alcatraz’, and George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly.
The most famous Alcatraz story, however, is the escape. During 29 years of active use, the prison claimed that no inmate ever successfully escaped. 36 prisoners made 14 attempts. 23 were caught alive. Others were missing and presumed dead, drowning in the cold and strong currents of the San Francisco water.
But it was the escape of three inmates in June 1962 that caught the attention of the world.
Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin carried out an intricate escape. The inmates spent time crafting their perfect deception: heads made out of soap, concrete powder and hair stolen from the barbershop. This led the guards on their patrols to believe the prisoners were still in their cells.
They carved a tunnel out of the vents in their walls, using plastic spoons, and escaped through the vents of the prison, climbing to the roof and down a pole to escape. They fled on an inflatable raft.
There was no proof to ever suggest that the three men died, or even proof to suggest that they successfully found land and escaped. The FBI searched, and they’re still on the wanted list.
In the early 2010s, evidence came to light to suggest the men did survive. The raft they used to escape was found on Angel Island, and a 1955 Chevrolet was reported stolen after the three men escaped. The vehicle was stolen by three men.
Relatives of the Anglin Brothers later reported evidence that suggested the two brothers had fled to Brazil. A 1975 photograph alleged to have been of the two brothers was used in support of that theory.
The prison offers a great audio tour, where ‘inmates’ tell you what life was like on the rock, what they could and couldn’t do, and what the history of the building is. The audio guided tour is one that should be taken, as you are able to fully immerse yourself in Alcatraz Prison, and truly take a step back in time.