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The Rock of the Bay: Alcatraz Island

Yes, Alcatraz has its touristy side, but in reality,  the history behind
this former Federal penitentiary provides the real fascination for
the visitor. There was plenty of informational displays available
for people to view and ponder prior to boarding the ferry.
The Bay Area is rife with places popular with tourists, with one of the foremost being the home of the island holding the former maximum security Federal penitentiary that shared the same name as the island it sat on: Alcatraz.

I never had visited the island in the three decades of living in the area, and perhaps the mentality of "that's only where the tourists go" played into why I never did. My spouse and I do a good job of trying to limit these types of attractions on our visits, but we've been to the area together enough to start putting these places into our rotation. On this trip back to California, we figured it was time to make our first visit to the island.

Like our trip to Mackinac Island in the middle of 2014, pictures really are the best way to tell the tale of our visit on a slightly windy otherwise sunny late-December day:

Approaching the island on the ferry. All visitors to Alcatraz must use the ferry
service owned & operated by Hornblower Cruises. These hybrid ferries (which
uses power from various energy sources) make regular runs to and from the
 island and proved to be a relaxing and comfortable means of transport.
Some of the beautiful views outside the penitentiary, including one of the
gardens and the lighthouse installation. The park rangers explained the trek

from the ferry landing to the top of the island where the penitentiary stood
was equivalent to a 13-story climb; a shuttle to the top was available
for those with either health or mobility issues.
One of the old cannon batteries on the island. The island was first designated
by the U.S. Government for military use shortly after California statehood
and the Gold Rush in 1850. Alcatraz, along with Fort Point and Fort Baker,
formed the defense for a possible San Francisco Bay invasion. Alcatraz's
guns were never fired in battle, and the facility turned into a military prison
prior to takeover by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
The old penitentiary looked forbidding from the start, from the prominent
"United States Penitentiary" sign as you get off the ferry boat, to the tiny
shed-like building that served as the facility's morgue (bottom left), and
the shower facilities (upper two pictures.) The shower facilities were
were where visitors received their Cellhouse Audio Tour headsets
 which are included in the ticket price to come to the park.
The audio tour, narrated by former guards and prisoners at Alcatraz,
summarized the details and stories of the prison well. Walkways were
were named (e.g. "Michigan Avenue"), new inmates were given "Rules &
Regulations" books upon admission, and sparse furnishings and iron bars
were commonplace. "D Block" was reserved for the worst of the worst. 
A look at the second floor's "Gun Gallery", where armed guards would patrol
the prison from the walkways in the gallery. Keys that were needed to open a
door were lowered to guards below via the device on the lower half of the grate.
Informational displays were found throughout the facility; we found they
 helped supplement the already detailed audio narration to great effect.
Inside the prison's control/dispatch room: the space reminded me a bit
of the broadcast booth of the radio station I spun records at during
college, sans any turntables or record albums.
Looking at the cell blocks A through C from the corner of "Seedy" Street
(a nickname for the main walkway between C and D cell blocks)
The cell that held Robert Stroud, the famed "Birdman of Alcatraz."
Indeed, Stroud was allowed to keep and study birds in jail, and
ended up making some significant contributions to the field of
avian science. However, this took place during his time at Leavenworth
Prison. After Stroud's transfer to Alcatraz (caused when prison
officials caught him distilling alcohol in his cell), he was relegated to the
hospital ward, where he spent his time writing an autobiography
and a manuscript detailing the history of Federal prisons.
Multi-media art installations by famed Chinese activist Ai Weiwei were
found throughout the island. Titled "@Large", Weiwei's artworks
"explore urgent questions about human rights and freedom of expression
and responds to the potent and layered history of Alcatraz as a place
place of detainment and protest," as described on the National Parks
Service's webpage detailing these exhibits. Activities exhibit visitors

could partake in included sending postcards of support to imprisoned
activists and listen to various musical works inside a prison cell. 
This message on the island's water tower hints at Alcatraz Island's past
as a center of protest for American Indian rights, climaxing with the
nearly 19-month occupation of the island by rights protesters from 1969
to 1971. This spurred other actions that helped bring Indian rights more to
the forefront in the public conscience and the U.S. Government, and led to
the annual "Unthanksgiving Day", a morning gathering on Thanksgiving
Day on the island to honor the indigenous people of America.
A view of the penitentiary's recreation yard, which was made available
to prisoners on weekends and holidays. Games of baseball and basketball
were commonplace in the yard; rights to use the yard were among
the first things to disappear for disruptive inmates.
Just some more of the dark spaces, passageways and crevices found
at this penitentiary. The facility was closed in 1963 mainly due to
the extremely high maintenance and operational costs. The island's
structures fell into neglect and disrepair for the next decade until the
property was transferred to the National Park Service in 1972.

Alcatraz Island National Historic Landmark
(part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area)
Open for regular visits all year except on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day
National Park Service Website Page

Ferry service/park admission available through:
Alcatraz Cruises
Pier 33, Alcatraz Landing
San Francisco, California 94111
(415) 981-ROCK (7625)
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