Alcatraz: The Timeless Appeal of a Prison Island

If you were a horribly noncompliant American prisoner during the 1930s to early '60s, you could be sent to Alcatraz, the infamous prison island surrounded by the cold and choppy San Francisco Bay. If you were violent once you got to Alcatraz, you'd be confined to D Block, also called the treatment unit. And if you acted up even there -- a challenge, with only one hour outside your cell per week -- you faced days in the Hole.

Our New Book

During a recent visit to Alcatraz, I stood in one of the cells of the Hole. I closed my eyes and pretended I was shut in the completely dark cell. My skin prickled with cold and creepiness. Less than 10 seconds, and I wanted to get the heck out of there. Some prisoners spent up to 19 days alone in the Hole.

Why do more than a million free people each year spend $30 to sail out to the Rock and imagine life spent in a tiny cell? Is it a fascination with how much can be taken from us? An interest in American history? Or, as one of my Bay Area friends suggested, the intrigue of a place where paranormal activity seems likely?

Many believe that psychic energy gathers in places of extreme emotion. And no doubt few places were as miserable as Alcatraz.

An Island with a Miserable Past

The island has a miserable past. It first entered the historical record in 1772. Early accounts by explorers dismissed the island as "steep and arid." But the US Army thought it was just the strategic place to build a fort. In 1859, the fort opened for business. It operated as a prison for deserters, Confederate sympathizers and insubordinate soldiers during the Civil War. Afterwards, the army established a permanent military prison on Alcatraz. But with expenses running high, the army turned Alcatraz over to the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 1934. They modernized the buildings and opened the doors to -- then quickly locked them behind -- civilian prisoners.

The prisoners that filled Alcatraz' maximum security prison from 1934 until it closed in 1963 found the site itself a sadistic punishment. Only a mile and a half from San Francisco, they could see the red span of the Golden Gate and the city skyline. On festive days, such as New Year's Eve, wind carried the sounds of revelry to the island. Yet the tides and water temperature nearly guaranteed that even if a prisoner escaped from the fortress-like building, he would surely perish in the choppy bay.

Touring Alcatraz

Nowadays, tourists board a boat for a comfortable 20-minute ride. On my recent trip, passengers wrapped up in scarves and hats to ward off the chill wind on a sunny November morning. Alcatraz Cruises, the official concession of the National Park Service, offers a dozen sailings per day.

We docked on the quiet island, cold breezes carrying the scent of sea and eucalyptus. Tourists can catch whichever boat back they prefer, meaning you can stay on the island for a quick hour-long visit, or spend the whole day there. Depending on the day, rangers and interpreters offer tours focused on different aspects of Alcatraz history.

The day I went, visitors could learn about bricks and cannons, or about the famous prisoner Robert Stroud, a.k.a. the Birdman of Alcatraz. Many tourists are also interested in the American Indian Movement's 1969-1971 occupation of Alcatraz, which lasted almost 19 months. You can visit an exhibit containing photos, video and sound recordings of the occupation.

The gardens are another draw. Despite Alcatraz' nickname "the Rock," a surprising number of plants were tended and enjoyed by inmates, guards and the families of guards.

Cellhouse Audio Tour

But the heart of a visit to Alcatraz is the exceedingly well done cellhouse audio tour. This 45-minute tour, produced by Marin County-based Antenna Theater in 1987, is available in 11 different languages. It's narrated in part by former guard Patrick Mahoney, along with several other guards and former prisoners.

Visitors get their headphones and recorders -- which are included in the tour price -- and enter the cellhouse. You find yourself gazing up three tiers of cells measuring 5 feet wide by 9 feet long by 7 feet tall. They tower above you, like decks of a cruise ship. If you chose a line where each cabin contained only a cot, sink, exposed toilet and two metal shelves: one a seat, the other a table.

The visitor feels the slightest taste of the bleakness a prisoner would experience upon first entering here, and being paraded, naked, to the tiny home he'd occupy for years as a number rather than a name.

The cellhouse audio tour makes all the difference between seeing Alcatraz as an unbelievably bleak building vs. an unbelievably bleak building inhabited by humans who lived their tragic lives here. Unlike other audio tours I've taken, there were no boring parts. Instead of looking for the fast forward button, I repeatedly hit pause to take in information. All the other visitors seemed equally spellbound. I've since talked to several people who can recall parts of the tour 20 years after their visit.

The tour is very easy to follow. Clear directions tell you exactly where to stand to see what is being described. Visitors get a sense of the parameters of prisoners' lives: visits to the recreation yard on weekend afternoons, obsession with playing bridge, the importance of reading -- literate prisoners averaged 75-100 books per year -- the paucity of outside visitors. You can look through the visitation windows from both sides, imagining yourself the visitor or the prisoner, who was allowed one visit per month. Many prisoners spent years on Alcatraz without a single visitor.

Escape was Unlikely

Descriptions of the escape attempts are fascinating. In 1946, Bernie Coy planned ahead by fashioning a bar spreader out of toilet fixtures, starving himself until he was emaciated and covering himself with axle grease. He managed to spread the bars enough to slip into the gun gallery, where the guards kept their guns. Coy and five accomplices captured eight guards but failed to find the exit key. This launched a two-day siege which went down in history as the Battle of Alcatraz and required outside help from the Marines.

A less dramatic but more mysterious escape in 1962 involved the use of stolen heavy gage steel spoons from the dining hall. Three prisoners worked together, using the spoons to enlarge openings in their cells' vents. After a year of digging, they escaped into the utility corridor. From there, they climbed pipes to the roof. And disappeared. Did they drown? Or perhaps make it to freedom in South America? Rumor had it the three had been studying Spanish.

But the tour is not all escape attempts. Most of the prisoners lived a more mundane kind of life, pursuing what hobbies were available to them under the circumstances. Some took up painting. Some played accordion or other instruments. Most listened to radio shows for entertainment.

In addition to prisoners, guards and their families lived on Alcatraz. For them, the island was kind of like a small town, with an officers' club and a grocery store. The audio tour contains a snippet from a woman who lived on Alcatraz as a child. She remembers asking her mother what was happening on one particularly cacophonous night. Her mother answered, "Don't worry, that's just the prisoners letting off steam."

Standing in the cellhouse, gazing up at the three tiers, I could almost imagine it: every inmate at once yelling, playing an instrument or at least scraping his tin cup back and forth across the bars. Wanting desperately to be heard, out on this cold and desolate island so close to real life, yet so far removed.

If You Go

Plan your Alcatraz trip at If you want the island to yourself, board the earliest voyage at 8:45 a.m. Want to experience Alcatraz after dark? The night tour departs at 4:45 p.m.

Have a comment to share? Like us on Facebook - OffbeatTravelCom and post your comment.

Teresa Bergen lives in Portland, Oregon and writes about health, fitness and travel. She's the author of Vegetarian Asia Travel Guide. In addition to writing, she teaches yoga and group fitness classes. You can learn more about Teresa at

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Published: February 24th, 2014

© 2014