News / USA

Millions Flock to Get Inside Infamous Prison Walls at Alcatraz

Carla Babb
SAN FRANCISCO — Off the coast of San Francisco, millions of people pay to go to prison.

They come to the island of Alcatraz to tour the dark cells of probably the most infamous American prison. From 1933 to 1963, the former military outpost housed some of America’s worst criminals, including gangster Al Capone and murderous thugs such as Machine Gun Kelly and Robert Stroud, better known as the Birdman of Alcatraz.

  • Alcatraz is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, including Muir Woods and the Golden Gate Bridge. (Photos by Carla Babb and Ryan Newell)
  • The prison greeted approaching ships with a threat: "Persons procuring or concealing escape of prisoners are subject to prosecution and imprisonment."
  • The Rock sits about 2.5 kilometers away from San Francisco. Part of the Rock is closed each year from February to September for bird breeding season.
  • Before it was a prison, Alcatraz was known for housing the first lighthouse and US-built fort on the West Coast to protect San Francisco during the gold rush.
  • Alcatraz prison housed 300 cells. 
  • Recreating cells ready for new inmates on Alcatraz.
  • Tourists can weave in and out of cells guided by an audio tour told by the actual voices of former inmates, guards and others that lived on the island.
  • Robert Stroud, better known as the Birdman of Alcatraz, was so unruly the guards moved him out of the cellhouse to this isolation cell in the hospital wing.
  • Stroud spent his last six years on the island in this room.
  • Three inmates used spoons to chisel through the brick wall of their cell during the escape of June 1962. They placed papier-mached heads on their beds and fake air vent covers to keep the guards from discovering the holes.
  • Every turn at  Alcatraz reveals layers of its history; the 8-foot-thick wall in the forefront is part of the fort built in the 1800's, and the prison cell house walls to the left.
  • The warden's quarters at  Alcatraz, which burned in a fire during the American Indian occupation in 1970.
  • Knives in the kitchen cupboards were outlined in black so prison guards could easily see if one ever went missing.
  • Prisoners were allowed scheduled visits once per month. Visitors had to sit outside the cellhouse and talk through glass panes.
  • About 5,000 visit  Alcatraz each day.

"To see how it might be to be in that cell, it's quite terrifying, and you feel very claustrophobic," British tourist Kirsty Richardson, 44, said as she toured Alcatraz.
The "worst of the worst" criminals were sent to the Rock, as Alcatraz is known, because of its "escape-proof" reputation, says Marcus Koenen, who supervises Alcatraz for the National Park Service.

Visiting Alcatraz

Since 1972, Alcatraz has been a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the second-most visited national park unit in the country. The park service says the Rock alone receives about 5,000 visitors a day and 1.5 million visitors annually.

Just like in its prison days, the Rock isn’t easy to get to.  The only way is to buy a ferry ticket from Alcatraz Cruises, and tickets can sell out weeks in advance, although the park service reserves about 100 tickets to sell the morning of the tours.

For Arizonan Raul Saba, 31, it was worth the trouble.

"It's one of those cultural things that you feel like you need to visit once in your life," Saba said.

Hollywood Mystery

Tourists are fascinated by the legends that surround the prison, and the Hollywood movies about them. That's why John Kraak, 51, came from the Netherlands.

"I was just curious because of what we see in the movie Escape from Alcatraz, 1979 with Clint Eastwood, so we'd like to see the inside," he said.

Movies like The Untouchables (1987) spotlight inmate Capone, a Chicago mobster in the 1920s and ‘30s. He was incarcerated in Alcatraz for five years and was bounced around to 22 different cells for his own safety.

"He was a big guy, and notorious, so people kept wanting to pick fights with him," Koenen said.

But Koenen says a lot of the stories about Alcatraz aren't true. He says movies such as The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) play a huge role in distorting the reality.

He explains actor Burt Lancaster made Robert Stroud “look like a reasonable, nice kind of guy who kept birds on Alcatraz." The reality was different, Koenen says. "He was a psychopath. He murdered a couple of people and was an instigator, troublemaker here on the island and was in solitary confinement."

Stroud was so difficult that Koenen explains the warden "finally got tired of putting up with him" and moved him to complete isolation in the hospital wing.

The lesson, Koenen says, is don't listen to Hollywood.  

"If you want the real story, come to Alcatraz."

The Great Escape

Hollywood has come up with amazing tales about extravagant escape artists like Sean Connery's character in The Rock (1995), but the real stories and the men behind them are just as fascinating. While evidence indicates Alcatraz's escapees drowned in the treacherous water separating the prison from San Francisco, doubts remain about a special trio.
In June 1962, brothers Clarence Anglin and John Anglin teamed up with inmates Frank Morris and Allen West to try the escape of a lifetime that will forever challenge Alcatraz's escape-proof reputation. The four crafted a raft out of rain jackets and built makeshift paddles.

They worked in advance to chisel out of their cells through the brick wall, covering the holes with fake air vent covers made out of papier-mache. On the night of the escape, the prisoners put dummy heads on their beds to fool the guards. Three of them squeezed through the holes they had made, but West couldn’t fit through his hole and stayed behind. The trio then made their way to the roof, where they were free to find a place to float off the island in their raft.

West later spilled the details of the plan to the FBI, but, by that time, the brothers and Morris were nowhere to be found.  Officials concluded they drowned, and Jolene Babyak, the daughter of the acting warden who lived on the island for three years as a child, doubts they survived.

"I believe in evidence, forensics, and there just isn't any to make me believe they made it," she said.

The Park Service displays raincoats much like those used for the raft, along with copies of the papier-mache heads and vent covers in the escapees’ cells.

Fifty years after the escape, the government still has a U.S. marshal on the case. While U.S. Marshal Michael Dyke fondly refers to the case as "a hobby", he says it’s possible the three survived.

"A teletype said a raft was recovered on Angel Island, with footprints leading away from the raft and a paddle floating about 50 yards (45 meters) away," Dyke said.

A life vest was also found on a nearby beach, untied.

"These vests were made to wear over the head and tied around back so they couldn't just slide off a body," he explained. "And statistically, half to two-thirds of the bodies dead in the water during that time period were recovered, so two of three should have been recovered if they all drowned."

What’s more, the original FBI files say three white men stole a blue Chevrolet car shortly after the escape. Dyke says that same car was later reported running another car off the road.

But then, Dyke says, someone on a ship leaving San Francisco Bay about a month after the escape saw a body floating face down wearing "prison-type garb." Unfortunately, the ship didn't have a radio on board and only reported the body when it returned to San Francisco weeks later.

Failed Escapes

Many "almost brilliant" escapes, as Koenen describes them, ended with the inmates right back on the Rock.

Once two men got out of the cell house and jumped into the water. One floated about 45 meters and ended up on a little rock off the north end of the island.

"He froze and said, 'Hell no! I'm not going to do this,' and stayed there until the guards picked him up," Koenen said.

Three children found the other man later that night, washed up on shore, exhausted and hypothermic. By the next day he was back on Alcatraz.

Another time, an inmate who worked in the laundry washing and repairing uniforms for nearby military bases sewed together uniform pieces. He put on his patchwork uniform and hopped onto a boat leaving the island.

"Unfortunately for him, the boat he got on actually went to Angel Island, which was a military base at the time," Koenen said. "They looked at him and noticed that there was something off on his uniform, and they figured it out and sent him right back."

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