We spent the morning today at one of San Francisco’s most popular sites: the island of Alcatraz, the site of one of America’s most famous and fascinating maximum prisons. It was an interesting way to spend a day of vacation, but it was a visit that will stick in my mind for a long time.
If you get to San Francisco, I suggest you take the shuttle boats offered to travel out and see the grim structures on the island. I expected to see just history about the prison, but I was surprised to learn that the island served first as a miliitary fort and a military prison for Civil War soldiers. You can still see the remnants of the Civil War portion of the buildings. I also saw evidence of an occupation of the island in the 1970s by protesting American Indians.
But without a doubt, the most imposing part of the visit is a trip up an extremely steep hill to the maximum security prison, now abandoned, which sits on top of the hill. The audio self-guided tour is an absolute must and the sound effects of the audio will actually cause you to jump and turn, expecting to see the prisoners and their guards behind you.
The cells are mostly empty now and oppressively small. Most people have seen pictures of the tiered cells stacked up three high, but seeing it is a very impressive site. It’s hard to think about the men, prisoners and guards, who died out there. While I’m not an expert on ghosts, I did feel oppressed and subdued out there, as if the essence of what these men went through is still there.
As impressive as the walk through the cells is, the view from the walkways is probably even more poignant. It is a mile or so away by water to the city of San Francisco, remining the men on a daily basis what it was that they were cut off from.
It’s an interesting trip out to the former prison, but it’s one of the few places where I didn’t even want to visit the gift shop. There’s something about buying prison-type lunch trays or hats that say “Property of Alcatraz” on them that take away from the solemnity of the occasion.
Alcatraz draws many people from all over the world, and if you are going to San Francisco, it is definitely worth your time!