Whilst a prisoner on Alcatraz, a high security prison in the middle of San Francisco bay in 1962. It took me and my accomplices several months to dig our way out of the cells, using the ends of spoons and climb up through the pipe area. We also made a raft and life jackets out of raincoats and created dummy heads to lay in our beds, so when the wardens checked, it would look like we were still there. We made it out and over the roof and down to the shore. No one noticed and then we were gone, never to be seen or heard from again.
Sound ridiculous…a little far fetched? It’s what Frank Morris or the Anglin brothers might say were they to turn up on Oprah. Of course, they would also be over 100 years old.
But wait, let’s back it up a bit.
Alcatraz is a fairly innocuous looking island that can be identified in the bay by it’s distinctive water tower and building. It certainly doesn’t strike you as being that far from the mainland, although the waters do look a bit treacherous. Certainly they look choppy enough to give anyone riding a raft made out of raincoats a few problems. I had booked the trip on-line with http://www.alcatrazcruises.com on the advice of my friend Dean who had been there on honeymoon with Sarah…that is that they visited Alcatraz as part of their honeymoon, not that they spent their entire honeymoon there. Apparently, some cruise tours do not access the island; they cruise around it.
My brother, Rob, and I left the hotel in the crack pipe district in what we thought was plenty of time to get a cab down to Pier 33 for the boat. We forgot to reckon on rush hour in San Francisco. A cab was: a) difficult to find and b) would have been stuck in traffic had we got into a cab. What followed was a route march through the city to the docks area…Pier 1. Thankfully, it wasn’t a case of 1 pier per mile, so we managed to get round to the pier we needed in reasonable time, albeit a little hot and bothered.
On the boat OK, we ventured out onto the front deck as the boat left the harbour. I had spotted the “warning – damp area” sign, so expected the deck to be wet and a little slippy. I neglected to spot the graphic that went over the sign depicting a huge wave coming over the bow of the boat and onto a stick man. Although neither me or my brother are stick men, it wasn’t long before a wave came over the bow and soaked us. I guessed that was why nobody else was stood out there. Still, it was just the one wave and I didn’t get too wet. Another wave came over that would have washed the stick man away. Time to go back inside, where we also got to appreciate how entertaining it had been for those insideto watch us get drenched. Some kids came up to go out front too and we got to have out bit of amusement as they got soaked. As one of them came back in the door swung open and Rob stepped forward to close it, just in time for another wave to wash over and drench him again. How we all laughed…those of us inside.
We arrived at Alcatraz in high spirits, but the sight of the road leading from the dock to the main prison building brought back to us what the majority of us had in mind when thinking of Alcatraz: Hell on earth, the prison that holds the reputation for being escape proof and broke the likes of “Machine Gun” Kelly, Al Capone and the famous Bird Man, Robert Stroud.
In fact Alcatraz, originally named La Isla de los Alcatraces (Island of the Pelicans) in 1775 wasn’t really utilised until 1847 when the US started to use the island as a strategic fort. It wasn’t until 1861 that the island began to be used as a prison, initially for civil war prisoners. It wasn’t until the 1920’s that the island became the Alcatraz that we all know of today. The island prison served many purposes. Of course, it held dangerous prisoners and Public Enemies, but it also stood as a stark warning to all of those contemplating a life of crime. We all know “if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime”, so imagine an island often referred to as the Rock or the Devil’s island as your deterrent. Very little of life on Alcatraz was revealed to the press in an effort to build up the reputation of the island. Let’s face it, it worked! We all know about it, even if it is from the Clint Eastwood films or The Rock. The prison closed in 1963 and in 1969 a group of Native Americans took over the island, using it to express their feelings towards their treatment – the last were forcibly removed in 1971 and the island was declared a national park soon after.
Our tour began with a steady walk up the incline from the dock to the, now crumbling, guard’shouse. On this walk our guide told us about the history of the island. But, he admitted that he knew what we were all there for – the prison.
The tour of the prison was an self guided audio tour. It was of very good quality and used testimonies from former prisoners and guards throughout. It guides you round the building and really gave me a good idea of what conditions must have been like…absolutely horrible, by the way. It touches upon some of the famous inmates, the escape attempts and a gripping story of when a group of prisoners took some of the guards hostage and a tense stand-off ensued.
There were also additional tours available. We opted for a tour about the escape, mainly because it said that numbers were limited. We thought it would be a more intimate tour and it was. About a dozen of us were taken up onto the upper landing and we were shown inside the cells where the escape took place. We were also given an insight into the sheer scale and audacity of the escape. It was tempered slightly by the fact that Alcatraz was already winding down somewhat as a prison. Budget restraints had caused the usual one guard per three inmates ration to no longer be the case. In fact some areas were not guarded at all, which gave the inmates, provided they could get out of their cells, a degree of freedom. Although, it was by no means easy.
When the tour ended our guide said we had a bit of time left, so he wondered if we fancied going into the basement. He didn’t need to ask twice. We went through and put on hard hats before descending into a basement that ran the length and breadth of the cell block. It was pretty eerie, as the light was quite spaced out, leaving some deep patches of darkness. I wandered off to take photos, not realising I’d left everyone else, but I did get back in time for us to return to ground level and head back to the dock.
Our tours on the island had taken us from late afternoon right through to late evening. It was cold and windy, but the view of the city was spectacular. My camera could not handle the distance or the poor light, so I did not get any good snaps. Our boat ride back was less eventful. We went outside, but were on the top deck at the back.
It was gone 10pm by the time we reached the mainland and we headed for somewhere to eat. Seafood was definitely on the agenda, so we found somewhere still serving. We ate fish, had a glass of wine and reminisced about our time on the Rock…I wonder if Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers did the same in ’62?