Alcatraz at Night: Wake and Wander Tries to Get a Room

When I was having lunch at Nob Hill Grille yesterday, I told the waitress that I was going to tour Alcatraz that night.

I asked her, “Ever been out there?”

“Not at night,” she said, and then she told me she thought she’d be scared, that it would be a freaky experience.

I know it’s getting close to Halloween and people have the creeps about them, but let’s all settle down. Others have made similar comments to me, and I’m here to tell you: Alcatraz is not a haunted house.

Far from it, kids – I was overwhelmed with beauty, not fear. That’s one of the things that made Alcatraz such a brutal place to be imprisoned: The paralyzing view of the city, the sounds of freedom blowing through the bay. The life they no longer had the privilege of was right there, taunting them every time they looked out the window or stepped outside (many former inmates commented on this idea).

Telegraph Hill.

One of the benefits of visiting the island at night is that you leave as the sun is setting. We posted up on the railing of the ferry, taking in the sun setting beyond the Golden Gate Bridge, the shadows on the buildings of the city. Slowly, the sun fades and the light begins to dim and all the lights from the buildings begin to shine, their gleam reflecting off the busy currents of the bay (strong currents and cold water were two factors that helped reinforce the security of Alcatraz).

I’m not going to get into too much detail of the history – the audio tour does a fantastic job, and the debate over whether Alcatraz was inescapable will never be officially settled.

Something I didn’t know: Many of the families of the correction officers lived right on the island – they had apartments and entertainment and the whole deal (the kids would take a ferry to school). I am pretty sure Alcatraz isn’t on any list of best places to raise a family, but the historians tell me it was a really nice place to live, that the families loved it there – the views and the seclusion and the natural beauty of the island.

Yeah, I thought, it’s beautiful – like a polar bear or something. It’s all safe and beautiful and majestic until an escaping prisoner takes a three-year old hostage.

Luckily nothing like that ever happened – although they came damn close when the Battle of Alcatraz took place. The boys took over the cell block, but luckily were unable to open the exterior doors. They took a few officers hostage – killing one – and others died when a team of Marines showed up and began dropped grenades into the cell block.

Doorway to darkness (the hole).

There were various forms of punishment at Alcatraz, but time in the “hole” seems like the worst of it. Prisoner’s went through sensory deprivation, spending days or even weeks in total darkness. One former prisoner told a story (via the audio tour) about how he would keep from going insane: He removed the button from his overalls, stood in the middle of the small room (4 feet by 9 feet, if lucky), throw the button in the air, spin around until confused, then try to find the button. Once found, he would do it again.

Sounds like something I would do, actually – I really like that story. Others reported that after a few days they could close their eyes and go places in their minds, and despite the darkness they would see light, colors.

Yikes.

Fun Al Capone fact: The guide told us that when he was sentenced to time at Alcatraz in the 1930s, he was pulling in over $100 million a year (selling booze during prohibition). A “good” salary for a guard at the time: $2,000/year.

If $2,000 a year was plenty, what the hell was $100 million?

My ticket was $49, which included the boat ride, audio tour, and other demonstrations (These are always changing. I saw a demonstration called “Sounds of the Cell,” where we learned about how the cell doors worked).

The boat trip (and city perspective from the water) was almost worth the price in itself. Get over the idea of this trip being too touristy – it might be a little crowded, but the walls talk, I’m telling you.

We had absolutely beautiful weather, although I will admit it might have been a bit uncomfortable in the middle of the bay if the fog had rolled in. Consider this when you are planning your trip. Also, there is no “time limit” on the island – you can feel free to relax and take in the views at your leisure, stroll around the buildings. Ferries leave every half-hour.

Last night, a group of boy scouts were spending the night in the D Block, camping out in their sleeping bags.

Those kids don’t know how good they have it. During my time in the scouts, Halloween meant putting on a blindfold and eating skinned grapes (they told us they were eyeballs).

Is it weird that I wouldn’t mind experiencing a night in the hole?

Photos:

Inmates with good behavior could earn privileges, such as decorations or art/music opportunities.
Main cell block.
D Block...Where the "troublemakers" are kept.
Bay Bridge
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