Alcatraz Island is an island located in the San Francisco Bay, 1.5 miles (2.4 km) offshore from San Francisco. Often referred to as The Rock, the small island early-on served as a lighthouse, a military fortification, a military prison and a Federal Bureau of Prisons federal prison until 1963. In 1972, Alcatraz became a national recreation area and received landmarking designations in 1976 and 1986.
To the inmates who were confined on this island prison, in operation from 1934 to 1963, their punishment was not only captivity but also psychological torture. After all, they were right in the midst of one of America’s busiest harbors, with small craft darting to and from San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and Sausalito, and they could probably hear the ceaseless procession of automobiles crossing the bridges and honking their horns. They could certainly see the ocean liners as they glided through the Golden Gate to far away ports - all reminding them that life was near, but freedom very far.
Picnicking is allowed on the dock, but you'll have to bring your own food. The weather is often blustery and cold on the island, and the trails and walkways rough. Wear warm clothes and strong, comfortable shoes. The audioguide is well worth the extra few dollars, as is the ranger-guided tour.
Today, the island is a historic site operated by the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and is open to tours. Visitors can reach the island by ferry ride from Pier 33, near Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. In 2008 the nation's first hybrid propulsion ferry started serving the island. Alcatraz has been featured in many movies, TV shows, cartoons, books, comics and games.
Alcatraz Island was the site of the very first lighthouse built on the West Coast in 1854. The original lighthouse was replaced in 1909 with an automated one, to tower above the new cell block.
Prisoners whose good behavior qualified them for a turn around the walled-in Exercise Yard must have felt very relieved. Here they could walk, rather than pace in their cells.
The cell house contains four free-standing cell blocks. The complex was built by military prisoners in 1911 and was once the largest reinforced concrete building in the world. In all, there were 390 cells, but the population averaged only about 260 at any one time.
From this bunker-like facility, reinforced to withstand siege, the guards controlled the 24-hour electric security system. Next to the Control Room was the visiting area, where thick glass separated prisoners and visitors, and conversations were held over monitored telephones.
Any prisoner who transgressed the strict rules and regulations would be sent to D Block, the 42 solitary confinement cells kept entirely without light.
The Visitor Center is located in the old barracks building behind the ferry jetty. It houses a bookstore, exhibits, and a multimedia show providing a historical overview of Alcatraz, and an information counter.
The corridor that separates C and B blocks was jokingly nicknamed by prisoners after New York City’s glittering thoroughfare, famous for its nightlife. The intersection at the end was named "Times Square".
On top of the guardhouse, a Missionstyle military chapel was built during the 1920s. It was used as living quarters and a school, as well as a chapel. During the post- 1930s prison phase, the building was used to house prison staff.
Meals were one of the few things prisoners had to look forward to, and they were generally well-fed, to quell rebellion. Note the sample menu on display at the kitchen entrance.
Until the house burned down in 1970, the warden’s home looked out to freedom. Designed in Mission Revival style, the home had 17 large rooms, and sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco lights.