My Great Escape


Approaching Alcatraz by boat

I’m sprinting in the night with my travel companions as fast as our legs will carry us, gathering speed down the hill and into the cavernous buildings. “This way” a Park Ranger points out the quickest path. “I don’t know if we’re going to make it” we cry. Passengers have boarded and the engine’s running. So are we, as we race to the pier, all eight of us are waving our arms profusely like our lives depend on it. The ship’s horn sounds. We do not want to stay another second let alone hour on the island. This is how I escaped from Alcatraz.

Me in several layers battling the cold on the boat ride

Me in several layers battling the cold on the boat ride

Delving into my suitcase, I place layer upon layer of clothing on until my body resembles a Christmas tree. When I’m done, I reach for my companion’s suitcase and help myself to a windbreaker for luck. It has the desired effect when I step onto the pier and face a moody San Francisco evening amid dark clouds and an unseasonably bone-chilling wind. We leave the vivid city lights and the great Golden Gate in our wake and sail towards Alcatraz. Darkness creeps upon us and a lighthouse protrudes above the rock, casting a shadow in its wake.


Alcatraz is more than just a prison

This eerie place comprises more than the remnants of a prison; Alcatraz is also a national park. The ‘Devil’s Island’ is made up of a dock, guardhouse and sally port, Post Exchange, military chapel, barracks, a warden’s house, lighthouse, and the well-renowned cell house. The island was first used by the military to defend San Francisco shores and its first prisoners were soldiers. Alcatraz became a federal penitentiary from 1934 until 1963. It housed the likes of Al Capone and Alvin Karpis. Before becoming a tourist destination and national park, there was a 19-month occupation of Native Americans protesting in 1969.

Alcatraz 1

Alcatraz sign and graffiti from Indian protest

My first steps on ‘The Rock’ are a little wobbly, partly because of the boat ride and partly because it is getting dark. I’ve heard the legendary tales of Alcatraz enough to be more than a little apprehensive. It’s time to see where the ‘baddest of the bad ‘once lived.

Alcatraz 2

Typical Alcatraz cell – enjoy your stay!

“You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention. Anything else you get is a privilege” Number 5, Alcatraz Prison Rules and Regulations, 1934. Inside jail I listen to the ex-guards and ex-cons both tell of how this mini-civilisation operated. In the shower block with ceilings two stories high, I touch the mint-green paint on the icy stone walls and a chill runs through me. A couple of bars of soap and towels are placed on the ledge. Cells are stacked up in a line as far as the eye can see. Some have ex-con’s possessions still in them. You don’t just imagine life here, you live it.

Alcatraz 3

Me reluctantly behind bars in the isolation cell

I find myself standing in a dark and dingy isolation cell. My tourist snap shot doubles as a mug shot. After only a moment, the powers of the isolation cell take a firm grip on my emotions. This really is hell. Our very own escape from Alcatraz is something to tell the grandkids about one day.

We took an Alcatraz Cruises Night Tour which departed from San Francisco by boat. Tours operate daily. For more information, click here.


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2 responses to “My Great Escape”

  1. francisguenette says :

    We did the Alcatraz tour on a trip to San Francisco a couple of years ago. I thought it was one of the most well done National Park experiences we’ve had. The headphones with the mixture of voices and sounds lent an eerie authenticity to an already brooding atmosphere. I closed my eyes in the small isolation cell and heard the voice in my ear relate what it would have been like and it was chilling. The American Indian Movement occupation of Alcatraz was particularly fascinating. Glad you made your escape from the rock.


    • heelsandhindsight says :

      Francis you’re a braver woman than me! I stood in the isolation cell just long enough for a photograph, let along closing my eyes. I agree the audio was a fantastic way to relate to the stories of those that had lived Alcatraz. The American Indian Movement occupation was something I didn’t know before the visit, it was a fascinating place. Glad you escaped too.


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