My Great Escape
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.