It Is a Rock: Alcatraz Island

November 10, 2012 — Sure, San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island became notorious as a maximum security prison full of some of the most violent and vile demons ever to wrap themselves in human skin. But it was destined from the very start to be a fun-for-all tourist attraction.

Why do I say this? Because it was built in one of the most prominent locations of one of the sunniest cities in the country. Pretty much everywhere you go in San Francisco gives you a view of this strange little island. Plus, getting there is an enjoyable boat ride and, once there, you’re treated to beautiful views of the bay and its signature bridge.

Basically, it’s been more famous than infamous for decades.

Its name sounds like an exotic magician’s spell, but Alcatraz was dubbed by early Spanish explorers after a flock of pelicans that were nesting in the area. It’s a pill-shaped piece of property that covers about 22 acres just 1.5 miles from the shore. Its original use was as a military outpost, which then downgraded into a military prison for about 80 years starting in the 1850s. Today, it’s one of the places you leave your heart when you visit San Francisco.

Of course, back before everybody went there, only the worst people did. In 1934 it became the prison that we all think of today. The place where Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly cooled their heels against 5x9-foot concrete cell floors. Where the Birdman of Alcatraz got half of his nickname. Where Alvin “Creepy” Karpis earned a record by spending a quarter of a century of his life there.

The Rock, a nickname for the island that I only hear spoken in my head by either Sean Connery or Nicholas Cage, averaged some 250 inmates at a time and, over the three decades of its existence as a federal prison became the home to more than 1500 convicts, in addition to scores of prison staff and their families. See? Even at its worst, Alcatraz Island was still a great enough place to raise a kid.

Alcatraz closed in 1963 due to the massive expense and upkeep that an island prison demanded. It became a National Park in the 1970s, but not before it was occupied by Native Americans for almost two years as a protest against federal policies toward the indigenous population. It’s kind of Alcatraz’s most interesting chapter, and I feel bad for only devoting half a sentence to it.

I think that’s because when we visited, I just didn’t know about that part of its history, else I’d have seen everything through that filter instead of as an ex-prison. As a result, this post would have been a lot more interesting. I feel like I write that line a lot on this site.

As it was (early 2009), we took the ferry over on one of San Fran’s signature sunny days. It took about 20, seagull-ridden minutes. When we arrived, we were given a brief overview of the place by one of the park rangers, and then let loose to explore the island on our own like the free men and women that we were.

Included in the ticket was an audio tour, but we turned down the headsets. I’ve heard it’s a pretty good tour and includes audio from both ex-inmates and guards, but by ditching them we were emancipated enough to move around the congestion caused by everybody stopping at the same points of the tour. Of course, those people left the Rock knowing more about it than we did, probably including that Native American business, but we evened out that imbalance later with the Internet.

I think the biggest surprise to me was just how pleasant the place was. I mean, most of my experiences with prisons-turned-attractions are that it’s a bit of a dark exploration. That those old places, Eastern State Penitentiary, West Virginia State Penitentiary, still hunker in the shadows of their history. They’re spooky, weird, decaying hulks that make you feel slightly uncomfortable for choosing to spend leisure time there. But Alcatraz is shiny, nice, almost glamorous.

Sure, it’s full of hundreds of little cells that contained the sad decades of bad men’s lives, but today, it’s a nice little island in a nice little bay just a nice ferry ride from Dungeness crab dinners and Ghirardelli chocolate desserts.

As to violence on the grounds, it had its share, certainly. But it only averaged about one death a year, and half of those were from natural causes. It also didn’t have a death row, since executions took place elsewhere in the state.

Nevertheless, I still think the phrase “island prison” is one of the more ominous ones in the language. And being such is obviously a huge part of Alcatraz’s reputation. You see that in how its watery seclusion gave a mystique to its escape attempts. Some 30-odd prisoners tried to make a break for it, and they were all equally dramatic, wet, and—according to official accounts—unsuccessful. You got shot, you got drowned, you got eaten by sharks, you got caught on the far shore, long before the Ghiradelli chocolate.

But the Rock feels no pain, and Alcatraz Island never cries.

Even when it’s covered in tourists and seagull droppings.