I had an interesting experience a few days ago, to share with you. With friends visiting from Europe, one tends to see tourist spots that you just don’t visit in a city where you live. I’ve lived in San Francisco for a very long time, but have never been to visit Alcatraz, the federal prison on an island in the bay, which has been a National Park, and highly visited tourist attraction for many years. The thought of visiting jail cells always seemed depressing, so I’d never been there, but it was on my friends’ list of must sees, and their son was anxious to see it. So we bundled up on a Saturday morning, anticipating cold, windy weather, went down to the dock where the boat leaves from, and it turned out to be a gloriously sunny day. There is a sort of ferry boat that makes the one mile trip from the city to the island, and there were several hundred tourists on it. Once arrived, a National Park Ranger directs you where to go, and a few minutes later after a short hike up the hill (there is also a sort of open jitney that will drive you up), we got kitted out with recorded audio tours, and set out to see the inside of the prison. The tour we took was of the main block of prison cells, and within a few minutes, for me anyway, it became one of those sobering tours that not only teaches your local history, but gives you an inside view of human misery.
I’m sure that the inmates of Alcatraz (which functioned as a prison from 1934 to 1963 for hardened male federal criminals), I’m sure that they weren’t a lovely group of people, but the thought of humans in tiny pens, barely bigger than the cots they slept on was disturbing. The cells were 5 x 9 feet, and 7 feet tall, with a tiny cot, a sink, an open toilet, and a tiny shelf, and that was it. I don’t think they could have walked around the bed. Twice a week they walked around the outdoor yard for two and a half hours of exercise and fresh air, and the rest of the time they were in single occupancy cells. And that was their lot if they behaved well. If not, they were sent to the “Treatment Unit”, more commonly known as the hole, where they would spend several months in a slightly larger cell, but kept in total darkness, as a form of punishment, and only got out of their cell for an hour a week. And that was it. In the normal areas, for well behaved prisoners, they could sign up for books at the library, or take correspondence courses. The tour was narrated by old guards of the prison, and some old prisoners, to give you perspective from both sides. And enticingly, from “The Rock” as they called it, the island that Alcatraz sits on, only a mile away they could see the sparkling lights of the city. Any escape from the Island was allegedly impossible, due to the strong currents in the Bay, and the sharks who inhabit it. It was an incredibly bleak place to visit. The only good news for them was that they were housed one man to a cell, so at least in their cells, they didn’t have to worry about attacks from a hostile or dangerous cell mate. And one of the things that shocked me was that among the prisoners who were sent there were several for tax evasion. Although it’s certainly not okay and illegal to avoid one’s taxes, it was nonetheless horrifying to think that cheating on your taxes could land in you a hopelessly awful place like that. Its most famous prisoner was Al Capone, and a number of others we’ve all heard of, among the famous criminals of the last 80 years. But penning men up in such tiny cells seemed an extraordinary act of cruelty, and must have been a truly devastating existence. Perhaps they deserved it, but human compassion didn’t seem to enter into the scheme of things. And in those days, with less stringent laws about abuse, one can easily imagine that faced with an overzealous guard or officer, there must have been some severe punishments meted out, with nothing to stop them.
I’m not one of those bleeding hearts who believes that prisoners should be coddled and spoiled at the tax payers’ expense, and I have myself been the victim of crimes on more than one occasion, in both cases crimes that were severe enough to land the perpetrators in prison. But those agonizing small cells I saw at Alcatraz seemed bereft of humanity, any creature comfort, or compassion. Some of the men who were sent there were there for 18 or 20 years, and I would think you could go mad in a cell that size or in total darkness for many months in the Treatment Unit. It certainly wouldn’t make the inmates better suited to society, but rather less so, angrier and more dangerous, or maybe only hopeless. Visitors were very quiet, walking from one area, and one grim cell to the next, listening to the tour.
There was a period of the prison’s history that wasn’t mentioned, but I remember. The prison closed its doors as a prison forever in 1963, and I believe it remained guarded but uninhabited for several years. From 1969 to 1971 it became the object of major media attention, when a group of Native Americans took over the island and the prison, and exercised squatters rights there. I asked one of the rangers about it, and he said they are not supposed to mention it. Perhaps it was an embarrassment that they were able to take it over and remain there for two years. I don’t recall how the siege ended.
Also, during the years that the prison was functioning, The Warden, guards and their families and children lived there on the Island. So there was a sort of village of non-prisoners living on the Island, and I imagine it must have been a depressing place to grow up, in the shadow of the prison, on an island, and in San Francisco’s usually bleak, windy, chilly, foggy weather.
There was considerable mention of two escapes that were orchestrated there, which I found interesting. One was quite a large attempt that failed and left three guards and two prisoners dead, and I imagine that those who attempted the escape and organized it were severely punished. And the second attempt was close to the time when the prison closed, perhaps a few years before. Three men had apparently planned it with attention to every detail, and that time, they were successful. They managed to get out of their cells, reach the roof, and then disappeared. The three men were never found, and obviously left the island, presumably swimming, unless they had a boat to pick them up. The mystery of where those three men went was never solved. No trace of them was ever found, neither on land, or drowned in the water. It would seem that if they had drowned, they would have washed up somewhere, but they didn’t. Some believe that they died in the icy water, swept away by the currents, or eaten by sharks. Others believe that they made it to freedom, and went on to lead good lives with new identities. And I have to admit, although I believe in criminals being brought to justice and even being imprisoned, but after touring their cells for two hours, and listening to the hardships of their lives there, I hoped that they made it to freedom. If so, they earned it. And then, still thinking about them, I quietly got on the boat to go back to the city. It’s a tourist spot worth visiting, but certainly not a happy one, and a tribute to human misery, which is always sad to see. And all I could think of were the three men who had tried to swim to freedom from “The Rock”. I hope they made it.
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Nothing better than something told by you…
I hope I have the chance to visit Alcatraz.
There was a tv series named Alcatraz and the history was that all prisioners and guards were coming back from nowhere with the same age they were when disappeared. It was very interesting to watch but it only had one season.
have a great week. loved your experience.
I visited Alcatraz nearly 20 years ago as a young adult and was moved the same way you were. It was fascinating in a tragic way. It’s interesting that you’ve never been there after all the years living in San Francisco. I live in Texas and am always surprised by the number native Texans I know who have never been to the Alamo. Another monument that is fascinating in a tragic way. It’s good to visit these places, and to keep the history of human misery and triumph alive.
Really tragic part of our past history, along with so many other things. Wonder what they will find in another 100 years that they think we did that was so tragic. By the way I have read all your adult books and NEVER found them to have real sad endings or beginnings. I think I will continue to look forward to the next one…
Thank you for this.
Perhaps they did make it after all and learned from their mistakes and went on to help others.
Perhaps an idea for a future book of yours.
Truth, Wisdom, Love and Sincerity, to YOU and ALL Mankind.
I feel a new book coming on! Your wheels are turning. How could I work this into a story? I’d read it or anything else you write. Love you!
Hi Danielle. I also live in the Bay Area and have been to Alcatraz 4 or 5 times. You should watch the Clint Eastwood movie “Escape From Alcatraz” it really is interesting to watch after touring “Thr Rock”.
Hi Danielle. I also live in the Bay Area and have been to Alcatraz 4 or 5 times. You should watch the Clint Eastwood movie “Escape From Alcatraz” it really is interesting to watch after touring “The Rock”.
Anything u write is so interesting !!!! Love you and blessings 🙂
Thanks for sharing this story. Enjoy hearimg from such à talented woman who writes such extrordinary novels, my favorite may be Bungalow 44.
I really love how you tell your stories. You always bring your readers to the scene. I really felt sad after reading your story.
I am from the Philippines and we too has an island for “criminals who commited heinous crimes”, but as far as i know they are free and has their ways to make some money like making crafts which are sold in the nearest city. The island is called “Iwahig”.
Thank you for sharing your experience. I am a reader of your books.
thiswas a very interesting story,an I would love to see a book about it written by you ,love an have all your books you a a great writer .thank you for sharing this with us.
We went on a cruise to San Francisco in September and had the opportunity to go on this tour. After reading your post I’m glad I didn’t as I told others on our trip I’m here for a good time not to get all depressed hearing about the cruelty and misery of men’s lives that had to live in those conditions. Will you be writing a book on “THE ROCK” after your visit now, as you are such a good story teller. Enjoyed just reading this short version.
You are right, it must have been horrible tobe there, imagine someone there that was innocent? Love the way you write..
Hi Danielle, Thanks for that interesting story. I hope u write a book about ONE person who went to the ROCK served his time and can back to society and could not make it on the outside world. WOULD BE INTERESTING.
Love all ur books.
Thanks for all ur good stories.
Hi Danielle loved your blog about Alcatraz. Please tell me you will write a new book about it.I loved the book you wrote about the Titanic voyage. A fictional account of Alcatraz based on reality would be very intriguing to say the least.Oh did I mention that you are my FAVORITE author? I believe I have read all of your novels.Keep on writing please!
Sherry Lynn Daddabbo
I am from the U.K and also visited Alcatraz a few years ago while staying with me dear friend Jackie Speier and her fab family. During the Alcatraz trip, Jackie was explaining to her son Jackson, who was about 9 years old at the time all about the history of the island, how the perpetrators were sent there etc., Jackson was so interested and then turned to me, saying “Liz this is so interesting, is there anywhere like this in England?” I answered “Yes Jackson, we call it ‘Australia’!”
He was a bit confused but Jackie answered ‘Good one Liz!’
Danielle I was introduced to you at the “Star Ball” May 2000 and have read everything you have ever written I am halfway through Pegasus and think it’s truly fabulous
Liz Sears XX
Thank you for sharing your experience with us. I visited the island in 2007. That trip was a trip that literally changed my life. As I stepped on the island my cell phone rang. The man calling was the probation officer of the man (former step-father) who abused me for six years. +
That phone call started something that stirred inside me for two days. As I walked up and down the halls,in the main building, my thoughts were turned to my abuser. The twisted mess that was in my head was starting to feel pity for the man.
That night I had a very rough night of sleep. The next day we traveled back home to Indiana. Within 24 hours of being home I had a panic attack that lasted 3 very long hours. I realized how much mental damage was done not only through physical and sexual abuse but it literally changed the person I was growing up to be.
After that panic attack, I was exhausted. This happened on a Saturday and Monday morning I went to my (weekly) therapy session and handed her a 10 page letter I had written to her about my experience. That was the first time I truly experienced PTSD. After that trip, I started working with my psychologist and started to unravel the mess in my head. This would really make a wonderful story to tell others. There are lots of twists and turns that no one expects.
…All because I went on vacation to the Alcatraz Island.
Love your work,
A few years ago we decided to take a trip to San Francisco from Canada based mainly on the Alcatraz prison. It was an amazing adventure and very interesting to learn the history. I don’t think I would have wanted to be one of the families living on the island but work was work for the parents. It is a shame though that many parts to the so called city within itself is in such shambles. As far as the prisoners go, I had no feelings of sorry for them as I feel if you do the crime then pay the consequences. Maybe if our prisons were more harsh these days as back then they wouldn’t be so over run. After all, it shouldn’t be a holiday! Overall, I highly recommend this trip to ‘The Rock’
I have lived in California for half a century and have never visited Alcatraz…my son wanted to take me, but after reading your blog…
no, I will not visit there…it is depressing and to me, sad ALTOGETHER…
Very interesting read…hp to visit alcatraz it someday
I would like to thank you for sharing this real story.
i have always been fascinated by this tourist attraction-I was 2 when the prison was closed. I am glad you shared with this us as it is a peace of history that I may not ever get to see except through other people’s eyes. Thank you!
Thank you for sharing your adventure Danielle. As always, very informative and very well written. I could’ve kept on reading as every story you write is always so captivating! Greatly appreciate all that you do! Love you & take great care!
I liked reading this blog about Alcatraz. I have never been to San Francisco or Alcatraz for that matter. I have read almost all of your books . I became hooked while still in high school. I have read all of them except for the last two or three. My eyesight isn’t what it used to be , unfortunately. Love your stories, Danielle. They Steele my heart! LY.
Every story you tell is so interesting and gets us to explore the persons inner feelings. I have also been there and shared many of your feelings. I just cannot imagine ever being in prison. Happy Holidays to you and your family.
do love the way you write. However for serious crimes this is justice. Today people reoffend time and time again. I’m from England and prison is a joke, old people in care homes have worse lives, with their days regimented. If there was Alcatraz here I’m sure people would be deterred from crime.
However love your books read time and time again. Keep going xxx
I when to see Alcatraz when my son moved to San Francisco. I feel like you did it sure gave me a lot to think about.It is a must see for anyone going to S.F..Love your writing I look for your books everywhere.I have some from the 70’s.
Thank you for the heartbreaking real experienced of you. It’s heart tormenting.
i only knew alcatraz island via fictional novel and now i learned how hard and dark lives of inmates there.
Thank you Daniel Steel for sharing.
I’ve read about Alcatraz very somber.Are u going write a ok about I??
I’ve read about Alcatraz very somber.Are u going write a book about It??