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Touring Alcatraz


9th October 2017

alcatraz dining room, deserted Alcatraz

Evening light streaks across the Dining Room floor as our groups stands in silence , alone on Alcatraz.

Alcatraz, the iconic island in the heart of San Francisco has, for decades, ignited peoples imaginations of daring break out attempts. No doubt fuelled by Hollywood’s sometimes far fetched accounts of what supposedly happened on the windswept barren slab of rock under Golden Gate’s gaze.

For many of the hundreds of thousands of tourists that visit San Francisco every year, Alcatraz is high on many people’s must see activities. A visit here though needs some thought and planning before your arrive. Tickets sell out usually weeks in advance for even the standard tour. With only one operator allowed to dock at the island and with a daily capacity of just 5000, many people’s dreams remain just that.

Alcatraz island panorama

Boat tours of the bay give lovely panoramic views of the island and the nearby Golden Gate Bridge.

Touring Alcatraz – Get Organised

This means getting a spot on a tour, any tour of the island, booked well in advance of your arrival. As well as the standard tour there are a couple more options.  The official provider of tickets to the island is Alcatraz Cruises.

  • Early Bird – A standard tour but with a place on the first ferry of the day at 0845 to see the island at its quietest.
  • Day Tour – The standard option for visiting Alcatraz.  Both these options include the audio tour.

For visits from Thursday through to Monday:

  • Night Tour – This late evening sailing includes a trip around Alcatraz before you dock to learn about hidden spots used for breakout attempts.  You will be led up to the Cellhouse by a Docent who will point out interesting facts from the colourful history of the island from pre-Civil War era through its use as a military cannon and what life was like for those that lived on the island.
  • Behind The Scenes – Accommodating 60 people over 2 sailings in the late afternoon, this is the most comprehensive tour that you can book.  It lasts 5 hours instead of the recommended 2.5 hours for the Day Tour and you must be over 12 years of age.  There is a warning that it is a strenuous tour but I didn’t find it overly taxing.
alcatraz laundry

The old laundry building, remains closed to the majority of visitors but its is hoped it can be added to the general tour in the future. For now you must be on the Behind The Scenes tour to see inside.

Touring Alcatraz – But Isn’t A Tour Already Included?

Yes, an audio tour is already included with every ticket to the island. Running in at 90 minutes, the pre recorded, “Doing Time: The Alcatraz Cellhouse Tour”, is a very informative introduction to the island. The problem with introductions though is they leave you wanting more.  There is no time limit on your visit to Alcatraz beyond the last ferry of the day which is posted on the board as you embark.  Extend your visit after you drop off your headphones with one of the Ranger and Docent led tours that are available free daily.

Acting as a bridge from the Day Tour, the Night Tour visitors have a couple of areas, such as ‘A Block’, that are open to visitors which are usually shut off in the day. To really get to know the island you need to get off the beaten track and for that you will need a ranger led ‘Behind The Scenes’ tour.

Touring Alcatraz – Beyond The Cellhouse Tour

Alcatraz Island and Golden Gate National Park Docents lead tours throughout the day and evening.  They change daily so check the information board when you disembark to see if there is one you would like to attend.  They are free and usually last between 45 minutes to 1 hour in length.  If you attend either the Night Tour or the Behind The Scenes Tour you won’t be able to attend all the talks going on throughout the island.  Likewise, if you would like to attend the very popular ‘Gardens Of Alcatraz’ tour please make sure you are booked on either the 0845 or 0900 ferry. The tour runs every Friday and Sunday at 0930 from the dock.

alcatraz d block, Alcatraz solitary confinement, Alcatraz behind scenes

Looking down on D Block from the third level. You can only get this view (and look into the Birdman’s cell) on the Behind The Scenes Tour.

Touring Alcatraz – The Ranger Difference

Rangers on the island are knowledgeable and passionate current day guardians. “Behind The Scenes” not only includes the standard audio tour but you also have 2 hours of the undivided attention of a ranger who holds the keys to certain areas that are currently off limits to usual visitors.

alcatraz chapel, Alcatraz behind scenes

Listening to our ranger, Sarah, explain about the Indian Occupation in The Chapel.

On my visit this included the Chapel and the kitchens as well as A Block and The Dungeon underneath (the original foundations of the building that stood here until 1909).

For those on the Behind The Scenes Tour, at the conclusion of the Audio Tour you will only have around 1 hour to 90 minutes left before the last ferry returns to the mainland.  I urge everyone to take 1 or two tours that will be taking place, depending on your time. These are all free and give a deeper insight into not only the living conditions on the island but also question the relevancy of the type of incarceration here and the US penal system as a whole. It won’t be possible to get to all the talks taking place in one night so, without a return visit, I would advise you look at the noticeboard at the main entrance to the Cellhouse and see which talk you would like to attend.

alcatraz general population, empty Alcatraz, Alcatraz behind scenes

The main Cellhouse. Usually a lot busier but people on the Behind The Scenes tour have access to certain sections while the day and night tours swap out.

Touring Alcatraz – Keeping History Alive

It’s fantastic that important issues like rehabilitation and honest, open discussion is encouraged by the wardens and not just glossed over. While Alcatraz was far from ideal by today’s standards, it’s purpose, the reason it was built, was primarily as a holding facility. In that regard you can’t argue it’s credentials. Even if you are only on the standard tour, you can still delve deeper into Alcatraz’s murky past by asking the opinion of one of the rangers dotted about the complex.

downtown San Francisco, San Francisco bay view Alcatraz

Only 2 kilometres from the busy downtown district of San Francisco, the inmates were tantalisingly close to freedom.

“Break the rules and you go to prison, break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz”

Alcatraz, or the fear of being sent here, was used to keep inmates under control.

People leaving Alcatraz may have served their time but they were released back into their communities without any form of rehabilitation. Free to carry on their lives as they saw fit. Alcatraz may have served its purpose but did it serve its community?

A visit to Alcatraz is stirring, its emotional and it should be. Alcatraz today stands as a monument to an outdated form of incarceration. Today it stands to educate us about ultimately how we choose to deal with our fellow human beings. The walls of Alcatraz have seen the best and worst of us.

‘A Block’ has been used numerous times in films but it remains closed to visitors to the island in the day.

Now in it’s fourth life as a museum, having originally opened as a defensive fort in the mid 1800’s. Converted to a military prison in 1868 when the perceived threat to San Francisco Bay never materialised. The original building was flattened when it was converted one last time to a Federal Penitentiary in 1934 leaving the now empty silent shell so many associate as Alcatraz when sillouhetted against one of the famous San Francisco sunsets.

Right or wrong, it stimulates debate and reminds us how far we have come as a race and for that we should be thankful.

Alcatraz officers club

Once the hub of social life for people living on Alcatraz Island, the empty shell of the Officers Club now stands silent.

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