One of the absolute must sees of California is Alcatraz. Steeped in history, this prison is probably the most, if not one of, the most famous prisons in the world. With some fairly high-profile ex-inmates, including Al Capone, it’s an incredibly interesting place and absolutely worth the $26 entrance fee.
After a short ferry ride we arrived at the island to be directed up to the cell block building where we were given a headset and remote control and we started the audio tour. The best thing about the tour was that it featured a combination of stories from ex-prison guards and prisoners, showing the many different sides to life there.
The first thing you notice about the place is that it is really small. For some reason when you view Alcatraz from the Bay of San Francisco it looks massive. But in reality there are three floors of cells inside one building, a dining room, a library, some guard rooms and the isolation cells. At any one time there was only ever a maximum of just over 300 prisoners in Alcatraz, and that makes sense when you visit. Those prisoners resided in pretty small, dank cells. No doubt life as a prisoner of Alcatraz was not pleasant.
One of the most striking things about the place was the fact that from the prison you can see San Francisco. You can see the beautiful city and the bridge. And according to the audio tour on a windy day, you could hear people’s laughter all the way from the Bay. You are excruciatingly close to real life which must have made being a prisoner there even harder. And I imagine those views and the sounds of that life was what partially sparked some of the famed attempted escapes from the island.
What the fact that Alcatraz ever existed says about our society, I don’t feel fully qualified to debate on this blog, but being on an island for prisoners made me feel a bit strange. The fact that it serves to educate now is definitely important. And it is definitely a worthwhile visit. Aside from anything else, it’s absolutely fascinating being inside the place where Al Capone was incarcerated. And whatsmore, it’s pretty cool being inside the place that has inspired so many interesting and cool prison-based films.