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Alcatraz Island

by Cyndy Ainsworth

What do Al Capone, "Machine Gun" Kelly, and Robert "The Birdman" Stroud have in common? They were all inmates at Alcatraz, the infamous Federal prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay.

The island's strategic and isolated location made it an ideal defensive and disciplinary site. Used first as a fort and later as a military prison, Alcatraz became a maximum security Federal prison in 1934. For 29 years the government sent its most hardened criminals to this barren wind-swept island for punishment.

After the prison closed in 1963, the island was unoccupied for 10 years, except for a period from 1969 and 1971 when it was taken over by a group of Native Americans as a political protest. In 1973 Alcatraz became part of the national park system and the island was opened to the public. Since that time, over 14 million people have visited Alcatraz for a glimpse of life in the prison known as "the Rock."

Your trip to Alcatraz begins with a ten-minute boat ride from Pier 41, and then you're on your own to explore the island. A brief video in the information center near the landing dock provides an excellent introduction to the island and its history, and there's a good selection of books, maps, and guides to Alcatraz and the Bay Area in the book store.

Then head up the hill to the prison cellhouse. The best way to get a feel for what life on Alcatraz was really like is to rent the audio tour of the cellblock. On the tape former correctional officers and inmates describe the day to day routine, the harsh punishment meted out to troublemakers, and the tension that permeated every aspect of life. They also talk about some of the most famous prisoners and about the Battle of Alcatraz, one of the most violent escape attempts. By the time you finish your tour, you have a real sense of how difficult life must have been, and the thought of spending more than a few minutes in one of the small bleak cells will almost certainly convince you to keep to the straight and narrow.

After you visit the cellhouse, you can explore the rest of the island. Many of the building are in ruins and are off limits for safety reasons, but the views from the paths and overlooks are spectacular. You should allow about two hours to explore the island, and be sure to dress warmly and wear comfortable shoes. Reservations for the tours may be made ahead and are strongly recommended, especially for holiday and vacation times.

Getting There

Blue and Gold Fleet
415/705-5555 (Ticketing & Sales Information)

Leave PIER 41:
9:30 a.m.
10:15 a.m.
10:45 a.m.
11:15 a.m.
11:45 a.m.
12:15 p.m.
12:45 p.m.
1:15 p.m.
1:45 p.m.
2:15 p.m.

Leave Alcatraz:
9:50 a.m.
10:35 a.m.
11:10 a.m.
11:45 a.m.
12:15 p.m.
12:45 p.m.
1:15 p.m.
1:45 p.m.
2:15 p.m.
2:45 p.m.
3:20 p.m.
3:50 p.m.
4:30 p.m.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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