Alcatraz Island

The Spanish called it La Isla de los Alcatraces and the Ohlone called it Evil Island because it was supposedly cursed. Other names from its prison era include The Rock, White Island, Silent Island, and Uncle Sam’s Devil’s Island.

It’s been used as a military garrison, a military prison, a federal penitentiary, as a national park, and was occupied by Indigenous activists for more than a year in the 1970s. If anything, this little island has never really housed people in a non-militaristic fashion. It spent most of its colonial life as a prison and Indigenous American history being avoided.

It would take me a month to write all of the history and events that have happened on this chunk of nondescript grass-covered rock in the middle of San Francisco’s Bay. But, I’m not going to because there is so much history already documented on the web.

Officials have always maintained that no one ever escaped from Alcatraz. They say it was the most secure prison in America and that everyone who tried to escape died during the attempt. The stats look bleak… 36 prisoners made 14 escape attempts, two men trying twice; 23 were caught, six were shot and killed during their escape, two drowned, and five are listed as “missing and presumed drowned”. However, I don’t believe it’s impossible to escape because 2,000 people breakout every year in the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon.

The island offers a self-guided walking tour that runs through most of the prison’s famous events, as told by Alcatraz prisoners and guards. You learn about why the floors are pockmarked in certain areas (explosions from the Battle of Alcatraz), why some bars are stretched (by Bernard Coy using a homemade bar-spreading device), about the notorious prisoners as they were (and not how Hollywood portrayed them), about who could be in the library… who could use the prison yard… who got put in the infamous D Block… and what life was like as a federal prisoner or civilian (the prison warden’s families lived on Alcatraz) on the island.

Bring your own earphones if you feel weird about using public ones. There’s also a nice little walk you can do around the island… if you feel the need to get away from the mass of people doing the tours. I would recommend taking the first tour of the day… because you’ll be done before the real mass of people arrive.

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