The Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary is also known as “The Rock,” is infamous as the toughest prison that housed the most notorious criminals in the United States. Located on an island and constructed of towering walls that resemble a fortress, this prison housed criminals that repeatedly attempted escapes at other prisons, or that were too difficult to handle. The Rock’s reputation was a tarnished one, having rumors of inhumane conditions and brutal treatment of its residents. It originally started off as a military prison, and many years later was converted to the Federal Bureau of Prisons system. The prison allowed only one man per room, and the rooms were divided into four blocks, the A-block, B-block, C-block and the D-block. The D-block held the worst of this prison in its cells. The last few cells on the D-block were called “the Hole,” where prisoners were sent for long periods due to misbehaving. The prison had a hospital, dining hall, warden’s office, library, and barbershop. Famous inmates such as Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Robert Stroud, and Mickey Cohen called Alcatraz home.
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Escape Attempts from Alcatraz
Alcatraz prided itself as the only prison that was ever escape-proof. The impenetrable walls were almost impossible to get through to the outside, and if the inmate was able to claw his way to freedom outside the walls, a frigid one, and a half mile swim was sure to kill their dream of liberty. Several escape attempts have been recorded, including the Battle of Alcatraz in 1946, and the Escape from Alcatraz in 1962. The Battle of Alcatraz was a bloody escape plan attempted by six inmates. After their escape plan went awry, they held officers as hostages, eventually involving the U.S. Marines to gain control of the situation. The escape attempt resulted in several deaths of inmates and leaders, much more injured, and later resulted in two more deaths of prisoners by the gas chamber for their sentence in participating in the deaths of officers.
The Escape from Alcatraz in 1962 was carried out by three intelligent prisoners. Chiseling away at their air vents, they eventually were able to remove them and crawl through the hole to a utility hallway. They then escaped through a vent in the roof and used a raft made out of raincoats to try to cross the water to the mainland. Parts of the raft were discovered by FBI agents on the nearby Angel Island, and after many years, the investigation was closed, reporting that the three inmates had not survived the torrential waters. Alcatraz records its history of escape attempts by inmates, twenty-three of which were caught, six killed in shootings, two drowned in the bay, and five as most-likely drowned.
Who runs it now?
The Rock was closed in 1963. The salt water had eroded the walls causing severe damage and is known as the most expensive prison to run due to it being on an island. It is now part of the National Park Service’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area. A reservation system is in place as the blemished prison receives over a million visitors annually. Tickets can be purchased through Alcatraz Cruises, and they will ferry you over to the island that many tried to escape from.
Where is it
The prison is located on Alcatraz Island, approximately one and a half miles of the coast of San Francisco, California. The currents in the San Francisco Bay are cold and strong, as some who tried to escape were later found and pulled lifelessly from the dark waters. Storms are not kind to The Rock, damaging the buildings and making travel to and from the island almost impossible. The island itself has cliffs and sharp rocks, lacking sand and the softness that many other islands provide.
How to get to it
The only way to get to the island would be if you were an inmate back then, and now it is by ferry as a visitor. The ferry leaves from Pier 33, and a schedule and fee prices are available online through the Alcatraz Cruises company. The San Francisco weather, in particular on the ferry ride can be cold and windy, so dress appropriately. Guided tours are available on the island and from the main prison building, as well as audio tours in many languages. Reserve your place in advance as tickets sell out quickly! Also, the view from The Rock offers beautiful views of San Francisco. Don’t miss the last ferry back because you cannot escape from the island.
Where to stay
Unless you get left by the ferry and have to sleep in a cell, you’ll want to stay somewhere relatively close for your visit to Alcatraz. The Argonaut Hotel is less than two miles from the location and has fantastic reviews. Check out the Courtyard by Marriott Fisherman’s Warf, and also The Wharf Inn, all within proximity to the pier and recommended places to stay while you explore the site.
The Rock Still Stands
Although it is closed as a prison, the location is available for visitation and tours, which many reports as well worth the trip. View San Francisco’s skyline from an incredible vantage point. Stand on the edge and gaze across the one and half-mile swims to the mainland and envisions the desperate inmates who decided that the plunge was worth their freedom. See the cells were the most difficult inmates were housed, and explore the island where officers and their families lived. The walls may be deteriorated, worn by the salt water, but the walls still stand proudly, inviting you in to learn about its dark history.