CA: Alcatraz Island

The inhabitable island, located in San Francisco bay just 2 km offshore of the San Francisco Bay was initially developed as a military fort and prison in 1848.

The namesake of the island is believed to de derived from old Spanish. Back when the Spaniards ruled California,  Juan Manual Diaz was the first man to map and chart the San Francisco Bay. Upon discovering the Island now know as Alcatraz; Juan noted that the islands only habitats were birds. Sea Birds to be specific. His map called the island “La Isla de los Alcatraces.”

With the American’s winning California in the American-Mexico War, Alcatraz Island was sanctioned as military fort and prison. Suitable for the worst, of the worst – the loyalists.

In the fire of the civil war, the idea of turning Alcatraz into America’s most infamous prison was born. Army generals were quick to realize that due to the Island of Alcatraz’s isolation, and lack of water, the island was perfect for a cruel prison.

It wasn’t until 1907, following the devastating tremor that ripped open the seems of San Francisco that Alcatraz began welcoming civilian criminals to its lonely cells. In 1933, the prison was promoted to a federal penitentiary. The island served as a maximum high-security prison for 29 years. Turing its tenor as a federal prison, Alcatraz jailed the most notorious criminals, mobsters, and derelicts found in the United States. The most infamous of the men include Al Capone, The Birdman (Robert Franklin Stroud, Machine Gun Kelly, Rafael Cancel Miranda, and Alvin, Creepy, Kapris.

My first trip to Alcatraz was under the imprisonment of my parents. At 10, I was sanctioned to walk in line as we marched onto the Alcatraz Ferry.

My return to Alcatraz, 20 years later, was at my own will. I was curious to see prison of my memories. It’s funny as a kid I remember my parents teasing us. “Careful Kendra, if you don’t behave the warden will lock you up.”

At the time, in a state of defiance, I remember thinking that the cells didn’t look that small. This same little girl also believed that an escape from the island would be a walk in a park. (To be fair, I was a petite child.)

Returning as an adult, I enjoyed reliving my memories of the island. As a 30 year old, the severity of the island was stark. As an adult, I could imagine the disgruntled furor of the inmates being processed for admittance. The welcome reception, inhuman.

I laughed at the stories I missed, especially those of Capone and his diminishing sanity. Wandering the cell blocks, I felt the chill of the souls lost at Alcatraz and the perpetual frustration of prison food. (On the audio tour, you’ll hear the story of the famous Alcatraz Food Fight, that took place near the end of the islands life as a prison.)

As a ten year, the stories of the kids who grew up on the island resonated with me. At 10 I imagined the stress of a carefree life, growing up safe from the city, but next door to the countries most hardened criminals. The story of the children catching a private ferry each day to school paralleled my childhood and the days my brothers and I would “ski-out” to make it to class. As a ten-year-old, I related to the children of the guards.

Perhaps what I was most surprised to learn of my return trip, was that after the federal government locked the doors and evacuated Alcatraz, the island became home to a group of Native American’s. For 19 months a group of Indians habituated the island. At the time, these men and women were protesting for their land.

Today, the Island of Alcatraz is a historic landmark run by the United States National Park System. Artifacts from the islands past lives are visible. Including the tags left by the protesters can be spotted throughout the island.

When in San Francisco, visiting Alcatraz is a must. My advice, book online and book EARLY! The ferry fills up fast.