On August 11th 1934, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary opened for business, so to speak. 84 years, 6 months, and 8 days later, The Coldspotters arrived for our 1 day sentence. Unlike past inmates, our incarceration was completely voluntary, and there were no escape attempts.
Before i ever set foot on the island for the first time, (this would be my third trip) I watched any Alcatraz documentary that was known to man. Couldn’t read every book of course since there was, at last count, about 18 trillion different written works about the place and it would have taken me 84 years to read them all. But, I felt I was well prepared anyways, I even lived for 1 week prior on a diet of dry oatmeal, steamed olives, and 30s era jazz music, all of which were enough to induce a gripping case of 30s era dysentery, but, I digress. I felt I had armed myself with enough intel about the place.
As soon as I stepped off the boat, and looked up at that forbidding looking structure, I knew I didn’t have to watch a single show about it, or read a single book. The walls, the grounds, the general ambience told me all I needed to know.
84 years. 14 known escape attempts, which works out to 0.1666666 per year, not bad. Alot of the inmates had fame and notoriety even before being sent there (Al Capone to name 1) while others arrived as unknowns and gained the fame, like lifelong criminal Frank Morris, portrayed in the movie Escape from Alcatraz by Clint Eastwood, seen here with the shit eating grin.
Frank Morris and his band of Anglins were the first ones to seemingly, and so far successfully, escape from Alcatraz and remain at large to this very day. The folklore surrounding this story run almost as deep as the prison itself and the debate of their survival will rage on. hardly any debate at all some will say, they “obviously” drown in the bay, their bodies carried out to sea where subsequently they were either consumed by a horde of sea lions or entombed in the watery grave that is the Pacific Ocean. Others say that is absolute hogwash, they were skilled, intelligent and stealthy. They easily made it to the mainland, set off on foot and vanished into the world, never to be detected or break the law ever again.
Chances are, we never really find out which one occurred, but judging from the sheer volume of their escape plan, the prep work, the other inmates who helped, the months of meticulous back channeling, passing things from cell to cell, smuggling and constructing, digging and finally getting out… it would be a bit of a letdown to find out that after all of that, they ended up as TV dinners.
We booked the evening tour which I would highly suggest. The boat going over seemed pretty full, but once we got there, most of the tourists, except for us, did the guided audio tour, we guided ourselves. Oddly, even with all the people there, we felt like we had the place all to ourselves. Large groups were on one side of the prison, leaving us, virtually alone, on the other.
After obtaining permission from one of the park rangers (his name was Vicky), we headed to a very empty D Block and set up some recorders and tried to do an impromptu evp session. Standing in these cells you feel completely at it’s mercy, even though you can’t close the doors now and it’s pretty much bathed in light, you still feel like those walls are slowly moving inwards and a small part of your brain that knows no logic whispers in your ear..get comfy, you’re going to be here awhile.
The evp sessions were interesting, and listening to them at home later on brought the entire experience to life a second time.
In all honesty, the first time I visited Alcatraz, I was surprised to note the main cell house was smaller than what I imagined it would be. I mean, it’s not small as such, but obviously in the movies it came across as something that was so vast and imposing in it’s size that it would overwhelm anyone. In Reality it’s not that big, you can make it from one end of the building to the other in quick order, the warden’s office is at the front, the mess hall is at the back, cell block in the middle, prison library is kind of off to the one side adjacent to D Block.
Other buildings on the site were either destroyed by fire or fell into decay and were never opened to the general public, which is a pity since seeing everything on the island would have been BOSS !!!
Alcatraz is a place that is steeped in rich history, as unpleasant as some of that history is, is should not be ignored or swept under the rug. I highly recommend that anyone visiting the Bay Area, take a day and go and visit some real history. I would assume that my three visits will eventually turn into forth or fifths.