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31st August 2010

Escape to Alcatraz and a Cool Night at a Cool Blues Bar

San Francisco from Alcatraz with Military Parade Ground in the Foreground      (please use scroll bar)

Watch Tower
    I had to book today's trip to Alcatraz days in advance. As the ferry slipped its berth, the island was completely shrouded in mist. The English couple I sat next to on the boat had bought fleeces to keep the chill at bay. The Golden Gate Bridge, which occasionally poked out above the fog banks, had now completely dissolved into the swirling vapours, and there was only the incessant sound of the foghorn to give any indication that life existed out in that white world.
    The journey was a short 1.5 miles hop, and soon we were docking on the far side of the island, where over a hundred individuals fired up with morbid curiosity spilled out onto the dock. We were given a quick briefing by a ranger: the dos and don'ts of the island, restroom locations, orientation video theatres and cell block audio tour starting point, and then left to our own devices. I headed straight to the orientation centre, with its surrounding exhibits and historical display boards, to learn the story behind the island. The video gave an excellent account.
Outside the Cell Block
Prison Window
    Alcatraz was the site of the oldest operating lighthouse on the west coast of the United States. Following the acquisition of California by the United States as a result of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) which ended the Mexican-American War, and the onset of the California Gold Rush the following year, the U.S. Army began studying the suitability of Alcatraz Island for the positioning of coastal batteries to protect the approaches to San Francisco Bay. In 1853, the Corps of Engineers began fortifying the island, work which continued until 1858, resulting in Fortress Alcatraz. When the American Civil War broke out in 1861 the island mounted 85 cannons around its perimeter. At that time it also served as the San Francisco Arsenal for storage of firearms to prevent them falling into the hands of Southern sympathizers.
Standard Cell
Three Tier Rows of Cells
    Due to its isolation from the outside by the cold, strong, hazardous currents of the waters of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz was used to house Civil War prisoners as early as 1861. Advances in military technology were rendering the fortifications obsolete, and the army switched the focus of its plans for Alcatraz from coastal defence to detention. In 1907, Alcatraz was officially designated as the Western U.S. Military Prison.
    The island became a penitentiary prison in 1934. During the 29 years it was in use, the jail held such notable criminals as Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz), George "Machine Gun" Kelly, James "Whitey" Bulger, Bumpy Johnson, Mickey Cohen, Arthur R. "Doc" Barker and Alvin Karpis. It also provided housing for the Bureau of Prison staff and their families.
    During its 29 years of operation, the penitentiary claimed no prisoners had ever successfully escaped. 36 prisoners were involved in 14 attempts, two men trying twice; 23 were caught, six were shot and killed during their escape, and three were lost at sea and never found. The most violent occurred in 1946 when a failed escape attempt by six prisoners led to the so-called Battle of Alcatraz.
Solitary Confinement Cell
Isolation Block with Solitary Confinement Cells at the Bottom
    In 1962, Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin successfully carried out one of the most intricate escapes ever devised. Behind the prisoners' cells in Cell Block B (where the escapees were interned) was an unguarded 3' wide utility corridor. The prisoners chiseled away the moisture-damaged concrete from around an air vent leading to this corridor using metal spoons. Their progress was concealed by false walls which, in the dark recesses of the cells, fooled the guards. The escape route then led up through a fan vent; the fan and motor had been removed and replaced with a steel grille, leaving a shaft large enough for a prisoner to climb through. Stealing a carborundum cord from the prison workshop, the prisoners had removed the rivets from the grille and substituted dummy rivets made of soap. The escapees also constructed an inflatable raft from several stolen raincoats for the trip to the mainland. Leaving papier-m�ch� dummies in their cells with stolen human hair from the barbershop for hair, they escaped. The prisoners are estimated to have entered San Francisco Bay at 10 p.m. The official report on the escape said the prisoners drowned while trying to reach the mainland in the cold waters of the bay.
Exercise Yard
    The prison was closed in 1963 because it was far more expensive to operate than other prisons, half a century of salt water saturation had severely eroded the buildings, and the bay was being badly polluted by the sewage from the approximately 250 inmates and 60 Bureau of Prisons families on the island.
    In 1969, a group of Native Americans from many different tribes occupied the island, and proposed an education center, ecology center and cultural center. According to the occupants, the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868) between the U.S. and the Sioux included provisions to return all retired, abandoned or out-of-use federal land to the Native people from whom it was acquired. The occupation was stormed by the FBI and forcibly ended in 1971.
    Once armed with the history of the isle, I climbed up to the cell block and picked up an audio guide, and toured the building. There were four 3-story blocks of stark cells inside the building, one block being an isolation block which included a number of solitary confinement cells. Prisoners spent between 16 and 23 hours every day alone in these cells, equipped with only a toilet and bunk. Typically the cells would measure 5' by 9'. A library existed to one side of one of the blocks, and inmates would often read up to 100 books per year. The canteen area was equally stark. Here prisoners would spend 20 minutes each meal time. This was a potentially dangerous area; prisoners would be in possession of knives, forks and spoons which could be turned into weapons. Along one wall which faced all the corridors between the blocks, there was a gun gallery, caged in of course like everything else in the prison. This was where armed guards would parade maintaining their vigil. The worst job for the correction officers was watch-tower duty, an eight hour stint alone out in the cold bay wind.
'Model Factory' where Model Prisoners Earned Their Pocket Money
Shower Block
    I ventured out into the exercise yard, the high wall around the yard offering little protection from the chilly wind blowing across the bay. Not many visitors lingered here. A side door allowed me to venture down into the gardens. Prison officers' families had imported soil onto the island, and the wives and children grew flowers. Eventually, some of the prisoners were allowed gardening duty. Not only did I find some beautiful flowers down here, but there was also a whiff of herbs in the air.
    I entered back into the cell block, and crossed to the administration centre where the control room for the prison resided. It also housed the warden's office. Outside it was the lighthouse, the ruins of the warden's house, and below lay the old military parade ground where prison officers' children would have played.
Gun Gallery
    I took one more walk back through the cell block, trying to imagine what it would have been like to have been incarcerated here. The noises at night after lights out would have been haunting: screams, curses, banging, moaning, non-stop muttering, snoring. That was one of the worst times of the day apparently. The monotonous routine would have been soul destroying. The fear of other prisoners would also have ground folk down, "Always walk with your back to the wall", being the motto. As long as a prisoner abided by the rules, there was hope, but if he stepped out of line, then woe betide him. For me, the lack of privacy would have tormented me.
    As I left the island, I wondered if any of the prisoners had really been rehabilitated, or whether their souls were still decaying like the islands buildings. I'll never know the truth to that.
    In the evening, despite not feeling 100%, I decided to venture out into the streets of San Francisco, with no particular aim. I ended up crossing through Chinatown to Columbus, a main diagonal thoroughfare crossing the city. It contained a lot of restaurants and bars and seemed to possess some nightlife. Passing by a side street, I heard the sound of a blues band from a bar, that at first sight I would have classified as sleazy, but the music sounded good, so I ventured in. Inside was a very lively atmosphere with all manner of life engaged in animated conversations. A solitary bartender was rushed off his feet trying to supply demands from his customers. In the far corner, a lead guitarist, a bass guitarist (who looked a bit like Hank Marvin in his younger days), and a drummer effortlessly and professionally played out a varied collection of blues music. They were a pretty tight and competent outfit, and won a lot of applause from folk in the bar. A core of dancers were doing their stuff in the cramped area in front of the band. The bar wasn't exactly large, and when a woman came in with a can containing flowers that she was selling, as she swung round her handbag caught me. I hadn't a clue what she carried in the bag, but the weight of it nearly knocked me off my feet. Later on, a girl came in dressed up as a cinema usherette, and she had a tray dangling from her neck containing candies and nibbles that she was peddling. Bizarre! It was even more bizarre when she wandered up the dance area and started doing a semblance to the can-can.
    A young chap sat on the next bar stool to me, at an angle so that he was facing me, and kept giving me amorous looks. This made me feel uncomfortable, but rescue came in the form of a couple who were sitting on the other side of me. They were from Scotland, and were doing a multi-city break over in the US. They had done something similar the year before, and had discovered the bar we were now sitting in, and had wanted to return to it. We had a long chat about our travel exploits, and how we each rated different cities in America. The lad also had made an interesting observation on American eating habits. He had noticed that a lot of Americans would order a starter and main course in a restaurant. They would attempt to complete eating the starter, sometimes without success, and often the whole main course would be taken home in a doggy bag. This was a whole new meaning to a takeaway.
    It seemed that the couple were not the only ones to return to this bar from far off lands. Further along the bar was a New Zealander who kept a motorbike here, and returned for a month every summer. The world was indeed becoming a smaller place when folk were able to visit favourite watering holes at the other end of the planet. Things livened up more when a group of Aussies entered the bar; they affectionately called me the Pommie. People came and left the bar all evening, or all morning, depending on the way you look at it, and an old guy stalked around the door with a torch checking the ID of all young people entering (Dan was always getting his ID checked over here). The bar was still heaving and the music playing as I departed at 01:30 in the morning.
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Uploaded from Francisco Bay Inn, 1501 Lombard Street, San Francisco CA on 01/09/10 at 21:05

Last updated 2.9.2010