Article Image

I've been traveling recently. Something about a cousin's wedding and a sister's 40th birthday and a combination of trips and taxes led me to be out of China for a whopping 31.5 days. I've never been out of anywhere for a month before.

I feel like I've only just got back from the west coast of USA. Returning to San Francisco for the second time in a few months was warm and familiar and a comfortable. I guess that says a lot about China and something else about doing the same small set of activities in the same city twice. For one week I was the duplicate tourist.

Alcatraz was a whole different story though. I've never been or done anything like this before. My sister has harbored a fascination with Alcatraz for as long as I can remember. If we're all honest our family vacation to USA had been put together around a visit to 'The Rock', the world's most famous prison. I can only suppose I was such a great brother that feeling a connection with a maximum security facility on a remote island is completely unrelated to her childhood.

So, on a dry and moody afternoon we boarded the last Alcatraz express ferry to take a Night Tour of the prison.

Normally enjoyed by a constant rotation of a few hundred tourists, the prison night tour is a more intimate exploration with more facilities open to view. And it's night time so feels way more spooky.

It really is spooky. It's so real and spooky. They do a great job of making you feel just how macabre the whole thing was. Most of us know it was a maximum security prison on an island off San Francisco but did we really know it was actually for life-sentence convicts who were considered too much of a liability in other prisons? Did we know whether anybody ever escaped? did we know that Al Capone was incarcerated here? Did we know why it was shut down? It's all freaking interesting.

This being USA they've done a great job of the story. You're handed an audio guide and walk around on a cheesy journey by an ex prison guard. Except it's not cheesy. It's involving and revealing and genuinely brings it to life. You're led through the cell blocks, the grounds, the canteen and the guardroom picturing what was going on here fifty years ago.

Half of which is unbelievable. They dug holes in concrete with spoons, brewed beer in fire extinguishers and got addicted to dominoes. One inmate spent six years to piece together a navy uniform to stage a comical escape. All on the stage of a max-security-prison-set that we've seen in movies a hundred times over.

Except it wasn't a set. It was for real. These guys were living off shafts of daylight from across a bay they would never see. They were mopping the halls in exchange for books whilst constantly thinking about how they were going to sneak off the island.

With a particularly imposing and deafening demonstration of how the steampunk cell doors work, we were thinking of sneaking off the island too. The last boat that night left Alcatraz for the harbor and our reward for escape? One of the best seafood meals we've ever had at Scoma's. Well done sis for having one of the coolest life ambitions ever.

More photos in my flickr gallery here.
Once a month they open the Hospital for public viewing - it's amazing!

comments powered by Disqus