Last Updated on December 12, 2022
Despite my many visits to San Francisco, I never took the Alcatraz tour. Then I took the plunge and headed out to “The Rock” on a tour. In fact, I took it twice the same week…it’s just that interesting…
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
By Jim Ferri
After looking across San Francisco Bay at it for years, I finally made the decision to take a tour of Alcatraz. In fact, I visited it twice in the same week: once when my wife flew into town, the other a few days earlier for a huge party.
The party was an evening bash hosted by the National Park Service for the closing night of a large international travel convention in San Francisco. It was something never before seen on Alcatraz: 4,000 of us — many from Europe, Asia and Latin America — wandering about with glasses of wine grabbed in the inmate showers, which had been transformed into tasting rooms by vintners from Napa and Sonoma. Take it from me: there’s nothing like a nice Pinot Noir to go with the view of Machine Gun Kelly’s cellblock.
An Alcatraz Tour With Helpful Rangers
What I found most interesting on this Alcatraz tour though, was the opportunity to speak with the hundreds of additional National Park rangers brought in to help host us partyers and answer our countless questions. It also allowed me to do things regular visitors can’t do.
I wanted to see the famous solitary confinement cells and headed there to chat with a Ranger. It turns out these cells were rarely used, but when they were it was brutal. He told me that in solitary the 5’ X 9’ cells were stripped of everything, including the toilet, leaving only a hole in the floor. The convict was also stripped, and forced to sleep naked without blankets on the concrete floor. At times they were locked in there in total darkness.
Experience Solitary Confinement
Although regular visitors can’t do it, the Ranger asked if I’d like to see what it was like. With another convention attendee I went in and he closed and locked the door behind us. It was an unbelievable sensation in that there was not a pinpoint of light entering the cell. I’ve never been claustrophobic but after the door was opened a minute later both of us were very, very glad to be out of there.
The entire experience on Alcatraz is interesting, starting with the ferry ride from the dock at the Embarcadero across San Francisco Bay. When you reach the island you’re greeted by a large sign “UNITED STATES PENITENTIARY” and on the walls in red paint “INDIANS WELCOME,” referring to the 19-month occupation of the island by Indians of All Tribes, beginning in 1969. It’s part of the historic fabric of the island, which originally was a U.S. Army fort dating to the Civil War.
I wandered all around the place, past the ominous guard tower, down avenues of inmate cells, around the recreation yard with its high wall and barbed wire, and through the inmate cafeteria where the menu, still on the wall from 21 March 1963, lists the breakfast of one scrambled egg, two glasses of milk, as well as assorted dry cereals, and bread, butter and coffee.
A Great Audio Tour of Alcatraz
Many of the visitors listen to the award-winning Alcatraz Cellhouse Audio Tour that is included in the price of your ferry ticket. The self-guided tour covers the inside of the cellhouse during the penitentiary era (1934 – 1963) and is narrated by actual correctional officers and inmates who were there at the time, giving both sides of the story.
As you get ready to wander back to the tour ferry you have to pass through the museum store, which, as one would expect, is filled with every bit of convict kitsch imaginable … Alcatraz dogtags for $9.95… Alcatraz playing cards for $5.95 or two for $10… Alcatraz salt-and-pepper shakers for $9.95… Alcatraz inmate shirts for $24.95…and up on the wall, a large poster reading “REGULATION #5: PRIVILEGES — YOU ARE ENTITLED TO FOOD, CLOTHING, SHELTER AND MEDICAL ATTENTION. ANYTHING ELSE THAT YOU GET IS A PRIVILEGE.” I wonder how many kids were given that by Mom and Dad back from their Alcatraz tour.
Living on Alcatraz
When my wife and I went to leave, outside the Museum store we met Ernest E. Lageson, the author of two books on Alcatraz (The Battle of Alcatraz – a Desperate Attempt to Escape the Rock and also Guarding the Rock – the Father and Sons Remembrance of Alcatraz). Lageson was seated at a table signing copies of his books purchased in the store.
In an interesting chat we had with him, he told us there were anywhere from 300-350 people living on the island in addition to the convicts, and he lived here with his family. On weekends he and his friends would take the ferry over to San Francisco and spend the day in the city. The only admonition he would get from his parents, he added, was to “make sure you’re on the five o’clock boat or you’ll be late for dinner.”
Later, as we made our way down to the dock, we passed a few houses perched along the water’s edge. I couldn’t help wonder how strange it must have been living in one of them, right there in the shadow of the guard tower, even though Lageson had told me he didn’t think his childhood was much different from that of other kids except that he had to take a boat to school every day.
On the other hand, when I was a kid I didn’t have such notorious neighbors. At least, I don’t think I did.
If you take an Alcatraz tour:
Only buy your tickets through Alcatraz Cruises, which is the only ferry service permitted to dock on the island. Several sightseeing tours advertise “cruises to Alcatraz” but they only sail around it.
Ferry fare on Alcatraz Cruises is $26.00 for an adult; $24.50 for seniors. There are also night tours for $33.00 / $30.50.
Go to http://www.alcatrazcruises.com/website/buy-tickets.aspx to make a reservation and purchase a ticket. Be aware that it is a popular trip and tickets can sell out several days in advance.
You’ll find a lot of useful and interesting information at http://www.nps.gov/alca/index.htm and http://www.alcatrazcruises.com.