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Not just any prison of course, talking about Alcatraz, the Rock, limitless source of inspiration for writers, moviemakers, travelers, etc…bottomless frustration for those who ended up there, most of them already serving a life-long sentence.
Normally offenders couldn’t be sent off to Alcatraz directly by jurisdiction or court, they were transferred to this ‘super max’ institution from other prisons, due to bad behaviour, not complying with the prison life system or being a danger to other inmates, guards, themselves or escape risk. Needless to say some of America’s most notorious criminals called this place ‘home’ before it was shut down in 1963. After closing down the penitentiary this place stayed abandoned for several years as no one came up with an actual plan or great idea to re-use the facilities. In 1969, and this up to 1971 the island was occupied by American Indian activists. Each year, members of all different tribes still return to Alcatraz to remember this occupation. Many Indian people now consider the seizure of Alcatraz to have been a new beginning, a kind of reawakening of American Indian culture, their traditions, identity and spirituality.
Since 1973 Alcatraz falls under the National Park Service and the number of visitors just keeps growing year after year. Just to give you an idea, every year, more than 1.3 million visitors travel to Alcatraz Island!
Need I say that during the planning of our recent road trip and visit to SF this ranked top of the ‘must visit’ list?! On advice we decided to go for the night tour, adding just that extra mystery, also the experience is more intimate due to lesser crowds, there are additional programs and guided tours and don’t forget the bonus skyline by night on the ferry ride back! Consider that ferry ride a treat on its own, if you’re a bit like me, nose and hairs in the wind!
Do make sure to book as soon as ticket sale starts, which is three months in advance, especially in high season! Do take the English narrated audio-tour and not your native tongue as otherwise the original voices of inmates, guards, etc will be overspoken and that spoils the fun, at least to my opinion! And do take a look in advance at the chalk board mentioning the theme presentations and programs that evening/day because some of them overlap. Wear comfy shoes and enjoy! Choices will have to be made! In total, ferry ride, audio tour, personal time, taking photos, following one or more guided tours will give you about three hours of fun! Go to Alcatraz Cruises for all info and booking tickets.
After the audio tour we ourselves opted for the presentation on Robert Stroud, better known as Birdman, what a great tour guide we had, natural born story-teller! We got there ten minutes early and could chat with our guide a bit about our road trip, the itinerary, etc…Yosemite NP would be our next destination and guess which one happened to be his favourite Park? So we got a lot of tips on which hikes to do etc,…guess the sweet man just didn’t realise we where not that hardcore hikers and we didn’t have a whole week to spend there, but we loved him and were thankful for it nevertheless!
During the tour we walked from site to site but never long distances and always in the open air so we had perfect views on Golden Gate Bridge , SF skyline and Bay Bridge the whole time.
Definitely must rewatch that movie now that we have so many inside details on the intriguing person Stroud was!
He was imprisoned after committing a murder but due to several severe incidents with other inmates and afterwards stabbing a guard to death, he got sentenced to death by hanging. Later on this death sentence was changed into life long imprisonement in Leavenworth in a segregated unit, due to his violent character and outbursts. Apparantly Stroud had developed quite an interest in ornithology after finding a baby sparrow and inmates were allowed to have a canary as company in their cells, so that’s how the ‘Birdman’ story begins. He wrote several books on bird and diseases topics and even got the attention of J Edgar Hoover, …rings a bell? He was the director of the FBI…well he ordered a canary with Stroud…only it wasn’t a canary, Stroud had used a sparrow which he had painted! Ah well, make no mistake, this was no nice guy in the end…he was considered a psychopath with an IQ of 134 who manipulated and knew when to stay under the radar. He was transferred to Alcatraz in 1942, none of his birds allowed there, he spent his days in segregation and afterwards in the islands’s prison hospital. He later was moved to a medical prison centre in Springfield. Stroud never saw the movie that made him famous by the way, he died in hospital prison the day before JFK was murdered. This is just a short version of the little bits and anecdotes I remember the guide telling us, if you want to know more on the Birdman or other famous inmates of the Rock, just go to Alcatraz History and Alcatraz Cruises History.
No Visit to Alcatraz without the ferry ride, if you’re lucky to have clear skies, enjoy the wonderful views on the bay, SF skyline, the bridges, Angel Island and of course that thrill when approaching the Rock and on your way back, if you had the night tour like we had, well it’s enjoying with a Big Bonus ✨
and let’s not forget the most important thing: the taste of freedom…we escaped!
Hope you enjoyed! More stories and pics of our trip to follow, so stay tuned and if you ever visit SF, hope this has inspired you to put Alcatraz on your ‘to visit’ list, you won’t regret it!