This year I was fortunate enough to visit the famous Alcatraz prison. I’ve always been interested in the details of prison escape stories and I remember watching the 1979 Escape from Alcatraz featuring Clint Eastwood with fascination.
Actually walking around Alcatraz Island was a surreal experience. Whilst I was expecting to encounter mostly horror, I was surprised to find beauty also. The view into the harsh reality of mid-century prison life is in stark contrast with the island’s lush vegetation and the stunning views over San Francisco. The faded colour palette of the prison interior is not unappealing and the island being a national park has allowed it to develop into an undisturbed sanctuary for seabirds. Nature seems to thrive on the former prison grounds, unaware of or undisturbed by its violent history.
A little history on the high-security federal prison and what may easily be the world’s most famous prison island: The main building was built as a military prison in 1910. In the 1930’s it became known as the toughest prison in the United States housing some of the largest criminals of its days such as Al Capone and Robert Stroud. Alcatraz prison was believed to be escape-proof, but several attempts were made nonetheless. A handful of prisoners were successful enough in their escapes to actually leave the island, never to be found again. All of them were conveniently declared drowned.
The most famous attempt on which the Escape from Alcatraz movie was based on, was instigated by the highly intelligent Frank Lee Morris, convicted for numerous crimes including possession of narcotics and armed robbery. He cooperated with brothers John and Clarence Anglin who were also serving sentences for robbery.
‘The plan was extremely complex and involved the design and fabrication of ingenious lifelike dummies, water rafts, and life preservers, fashioned from over fifty rain coats that had been acquired from other inmates – some donated and some stolen. They would also require a variety of crudely made tools to dig with, and to construct the accessories necessary for the escape.‘ source
The escape attempts, notorious inmates and daily prison routines are all brought to life through a very interesting audio tour. From walking up Broadway (the prisons main avenue) for the first time as a new inmate whilst being simultaneously intimated and cat called by the current prisoners from their cells to fond memories of Alcatraz youngest inhabitants: the prison guards’ kids, with realistic audio effects and in dept stories, you really do get a hint of what life at Alcatraz might have been like. Enough at least, to be happy to set foot on the ferry and see Alcatraz become smaller and smaller as you head back to the freedom of San Francisco.
Find out more about other interesting places I’ve visited, for instance this one.