Complete Guide to Alcatraz Prison: Visit, Tour, Tickets

Who I am
Alejandra Rangel
@alejandrarangel
SOURCES CONSULTED:

wikipedia.org, lonelyplanet.com

Author and references

From the shore of the City of San Francisco, the Alcatraz prison, to see it, it doesn't seem so far away. Despite the 2 km that separate it from the mainland, in fact, the tiny “The Rock” so renamed it really seems that it can be reached by swimming.

I wasn't the only one thinking this: reportedly 36 men (stronger and more resilient than me) attempted to escape from Alcatraz and "officially" no one ever made it.



And it's true: although it is only a few kilometers away from the mainland, the strong currents and freezing temperatures of the bay water, make it practically impossible to swim and thus to escape. Or, at least, so I was told.

Surrounded by strong currents and fortified by steel and concrete, Alcatraz federal prison was supposed to be la America's quintessential maximum security prison, a place no one could escape: Alcatraz is essentially a rock surrounded by water - hence the supernatural nickname "The Rock".

One of the many myths of Alcatraz is that it was impossible to survive a swim from the island to the mainland also because of the sharks. In fact, there are no man-eating sharks in San Francisco Bay, just small sharks that feed on minnows.

  • 1 - History
  • 2 - Attempts to escape
  • 2 - Visit
    • Buy Tickets Online
    • How to do if the tickets are sold out

Alcatraz prison history

Alcatraz was designed to serve as America's highest security, least privilege penitentiary, what is now referred to as a "super max" institution. From 1934 to 1963, Alcatraz was home to some of the gods America's most famous criminals.



Alcatraz was called the "prison within the prison system," since all inmates were transferred from other federal prisons. Courts and tribunals could not sentence anyone to Alcatraz.

Instead, The Rock was where the authorities sent the most harassing prisoners until it was decided that they could safely be returned to a lower security institution. Their average stay was five years.

“You break the rules, you go to prison. You break the prison rules, you go to Alcatraz”

Among the Alcatraz's most famous inmates there are big names like Alphonse “Scarface” Capone (who, despite being a great criminal, was eventually sent to prison for tax evasion!), George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Arthur “Doc” Barker.

Most people know that Alcatraz was once a world famous federal penitentiary, but the history of the island before and after the penitentiary era is less well known.

For example, few know that it was also the site of the first American lighthouse on the west coast and that the island served as a huge one strong defense of the port during the civil war.

After the fort became obsolete, the US military turned the island into a grim military prison and later a maximum security prison in response to the crime wave that swept the country in the early 30s due to the Great Depression and Prohibition who produced gangsters like Al Capone and Mickey Cohen.

After the penitentiary closed, Alcatraz became the site of a American Indian protest movement. On November 9, 1969, a group of Native Americans landed on the island and claimed it in the name of "Indians of all tribes".



This occupation lasted almost 19 months. You will still be able to see the remains of the occupation on the island, such as the “Indians Welcome” sign welcoming visitors who disembark at Alcatraz.

Alcatraz prison was closed on March 21, 1963 after 29 years of operation as the institution it was too expensive to keep running. Alcatraz prison was nearly three times more expensive to run than any other federal prison.

The greatest expense was caused byphysical isolation of the island - in short, for the exact same reason that the islands have been used as prisons throughout history. This isolation meant that everything (food, supplies, water, fuel) had to be brought to Alcatraz by boat.

Attempts to escape from Alcatraz

Reportedly, Alcatraz was one of the safest prisons in the world and nothing, of course, could have destroyed his reputation faster than an escaped prisoner.

During the 29 years (1934-1963) that the federal prison managed Alcatraz, 36 men (including two who attempted to escape twice) were involved in 14 escape attempts separated.

Of these, 23 were captured, 6 were killed on their escape and 2 drowned.

Five inmates, however, disappeared and they were never seen again, but the greatest odds are that they drowned and their bodies were never recovered. Officially, no one has ever managed to escape from Alcatraz, although to date the five prisoners were listed as "missing and presumed drowned".

Exactly this attempt at Alcatraz escape, was made famous by Clint Eastwood in the film entitled "Escape from Alcatraz".



The 11 June 1962, Frank morris and the brothers John e Clarence Anglin they vanished from their cells and were never seen again.

An investigation revealed a lengthy and elaborate escape plan involving homemade drills to widen ventilation holes, false walls and dummy but so realistic heads (complete with human hair) that once placed in the beds, they fooled the guards who they did the night check-ups.

The three men exited through the ventilation holes located in the back wall of their cell, they had enlarged the vent holes with spoons and made false ventilation grilles in the wall to hide their work.

Through the ventilation holes, they climbed to the roof and from there they descended along a 13 meter high eaves.

They are believed to have started from the northeast side of the island near the power plant building.

They used raincoats released in prison to make rough life jackets and a primitive raft.

La search for bodies in the bay led to the discovery of two life jackets (one in the bay, the other outside the Golden Gate), oars, letters and photographs belonging to the Anglis carefully wrapped to be protected from the water. But of the 3 fugitives, no trace.

A few days after their escape, to the San Francisco police office a postcard arrived with only "We made it, ha ha ha" but neither the fingerprints nor the handwriting corresponded to those of the 3 prisoners (or at least this is told, but who knows if it's true).

Several weeks later, a human body dressed in blue prison uniform-like robes was found a short distance off the San Francisco coast, but the body was too deteriorated to be identified.

Morris and the Anglis are officially listed as missing and presumed drowned.

Visit of Alcatraz

Alcatraz today is a museum and one of the things to see absolutely in San Francisco, attracting approximately 1,5 million visitors each year.

Alcatraz, which was once a place of isolation, punishment and suffering, is now a national park - it sounds strange, I know.

Today is home to gardens, bird colonies and beautiful bay views. Anyone who visits Alcatraz is surprised at how beautiful the island is. And I must admit that it is one of the most fascinating sites in the entire city of San Francisco.

After disembarking (where you are greeted by the "Indians Welcome" sign) you walk for about 10 minutes to reach the prison where aaudio guide, in a large room that housed the showers and the distribution of linen.

La distance from the pier to the prison it is about 0,4 km and the difference in altitude is 40 meters, the equivalent of climbing a 13-storey building. For those with walking difficulties, there is a tram available which starts to the left of the pier and leads up to the top.

The streets and walkways are wide with several places to stop along the way to rest and admire the breathtaking views on the San Francisco Bay.

With the tour, a 45-minute audio presentation “Doing Time: The Alcatraz Cellhouse Tour” is offered with interesting stories told by actual corrective agents and prisoners who lived and worked in the prison.

The audio guide guides you to every part of the prison e provides vivid descriptions of what life was like within it.

Il Alcatraz three-story prison comprised the four main blocks of the prison, A-Block, B-Block, C-Block and D-Block, the caretaker's office, the visiting room, the library the barber, the kitchen and the dining room where prisoners and staff together ate three meals a day.

The prison corridors are named after major American streets such as Broadway and Michigan Avenue.

The cells, specially designed so that none of them were adjacent to an outer wall, typically measured 2,7m by 1,5m and 2,1m in height. The cells were sparse, furnished only with a bed, a desk, a sink, and a toilet on the back wall.

The cells were single to ensure that the inmate had time to reflect and meditate on his misdeeds.

In Alcatraz, a prisoner had four rights: food, clothing, shelter, and medical care.

Everything else was a privilege that had to be earned. Some privileges included work, correspondence and family visits, access to the prison library, and some recreational activities such as painting and music.

Just as they could be earned, privileges could be removed.

My visit to Alcatraz prison dispelled many myths and legends that have been told.

Meanwhile, to avoid discontent among the prisoners (and thus reduce the likelihood of prison riots) the food was of high quality and in large portions. This also had another purpose: all this food combined with very few exercises led most of the prisoners to be overweight, making escape even more difficult.

Even the hot showers and toilets were "luxury" to be a prison so that diving into the icy waters of the bay did not seem a very attractive idea.

At the end of each meal, forks, spoons, and knives were laid out on the table and carefully counted to make sure nothing was taken as a potential weapon.

Il D-Block, the most interesting, was the "treatment block" for some of the worst inmates, with varying degrees of punishment, includingisolation. Prisoners usually spent 3 to 19 days in solitary confinement.

The prisoners held here received their meals in their cells, could not work and could only shower twice a week.

Cells 9-14 were known as "the holes", they were the worst cells and are located at the end of D-Block.

These small cells were devoid of light and colder than the rest of the prison, prisoners sent here were regularly stripped, beaten and tortured and often starved, forced to sleep on the cold concrete floor wearing nothing but light underwear.

The inmates weren't the only ones living on the island. The guards and their families also lived there. The children took a boat from the island to go to school every day.

Nothing was produced or grown on the island, so it was necessary to bring everything, including water from the mainland. The island had a cinema and other recreational opportunities. But life even for the guards' families, while apparently normal, was a bit strange. Children weren't allowed to have toy guns, because a prisoner could take possession of them, use them to bluff a guard, and escape.

Tours and tickets

To reach Alcatraz, it is necessary book tickets well in advance. If you plan to buy tickets on the spot, you most likely will not be able to go up to the island.

In short, while people once tried to escape from Alcatraz, now they are dying to go there and there are not enough tickets for everyone. Even Justin Timberlake was turned away from the island when he showed up on the San Francisco Fire Department's ship!

If you want to visit Alcatraz you can book i tickets online in several ways:

  • Means Alcatraz Cruises . However, there is no purchase option.
  • Through collaborator Tiqets, at a cost of 33,47 euros (to which 3 euros of management costs are added). There is a purchase option.
  • By purchasing the San Francisco City Pass which has the visit to Alcatraz among the attractions included

The first question many people ask about Alcatraz tickets is how a National Park can be like that expensive. What exactly is included to justify the cost?

Here's why: Your Alcatraz ticket is not for island admission. Part of the ticket cost includes the prison audio guide, but most of the ticket cost goes to Alcatraz Cruises for-profit to pay for the ferry trip to / from the island (the only way to get there to Alcatraz).

There are several Alcatraz tours:

  • Early Bird Tour: to tour the prison in total silence and without too many people then I recommend this ticket, which represents the first tour of the day
  • Day Tour: includes tours that depart from 9:30 am to early afternoon, with ferries available every hour (also available for purchase from Ticketbar and San Francisco City Pass).
  • Night tour: it is a tour that starts from the pier in the late afternoon and allows you to visit the island and the bay after sunset, in a suggestive and equally gloomy atmosphere (sold only by Alcatraz Cruises).

When you book a ticket and select a clockwise, this is when your boat will depart. Show up for boarding at least half an hour before departure time.

Customers who purchase and print Alcatraz tickets on the web should arrive at Pier 33, at the departure dock, with their identity document. The document must be presented by the person who made the purchase.

For first-time visitors to San Francisco, it's easy to get confused with the Pier numbers - you may know where Pier 39 (Fisherman's Wharf) is, but note that Pier 33 isn't that close.

Familiarizza cousin her how to get to Pier 33 not to risk losing the tour.

Also note the time of the return boat so you don't miss the last boat and end the night in the mysterious Alcatraz cell, known as one of the most haunted places in the United States.

How to do if the tickets are sold out

What do you do if Alcatraz tickets they are out of stock during your trip to San Francisco? Here I give you some alternative advice.

Basically there are 4 ways:

1 - Resale sites

2 - Alcatraz combo tours + other attractions

3 - Wait in the stand-by line

4 - with a bay cruise

1 - Resale sites

Some sites like Craigslist or StubHub might work for finding tickets if it weren't that it is illegal to resell Alcatraz tickets and therefore it is best to avoid.

These sites are also not a good option for finding cheap Alcatraz tickets since retailers usually raise the price taking advantage of the fact that Alcatraz tour tickets are sold out.

2 - Alcatraz combo tours + other attractions

Try a organized tour that offers combined tickets that include both a visit to Alcatraz and another type of activity.

In fact, even though it is illegal to resell individual Alcatraz tickets, there are official third-party operators who are allowed to “package” Alcatraz tickets with San Francisco tours.

Here 3 trusted and authorized sites:

  1. Combination tour Alcatraz on Ticketbar
  2. Alcatraz combo tours on Getyourguide
  3. Alcatraz Combined Tours on Civitatis

Whether you buy an Alcatraz tour with one of the three sites I mentioned to you or with a different company, buy them at least a week in advance!

3 – Coda di Stand-by

An alternative is to show up at Pier 33 where the ferries to Alcatraz leave and wait in the stand-by line.

Now I want to be totally honest with you. Waiting in the ticket standby line gives you absolutely no guarantee that you will be able to get it! So this is the last option, the reserve one, if you really have not found alternatives and are willing to risk throwing an afternoon in line with the risk of returning to the hotel without having visited Alcatraz.

The stand-by queue can start forming as early as 4am, and the first Alcatraz ferry leaves no earlier than 9am.

However, this is an option that can be done for a reason: the ferries leave without waiting for latecomers. This means that if you are there, first in line and someone with the ticket does not show up, you can get on the boat for him.

So when someone doesn't show up Alcatraz Cruises will call people from the waiting line to take their seats.
Beware that only those who show up will have the ticket. That is, if you are 4 in the family, all 4 will have to stand in line.

4 - Enjoy Alcatraz from a remote bay cruise

Once you've exhausted all available options, this may be the only realistic way to "see" Alcatraz. Don't visit Alcatraz - just see it from afar.

Although this is not the most satisfying way to visit Alcatraz why you do not go down to the island, it may be the only way to get close to the former San Francisco prison.

Taking a boat trip when Alcatraz tickets are sold out is still a nice and fun alternative because these cruises usually take you under the Golden Gate Bridge, and sometimes out of the AT&T Park if the Giants are playing a game.

This part of the bay is usually filled with locals in rowboats and fishing boats hoping to catch a flying ball that escaped from the baseball park!

As long as you are aware that these “Alcatraz Island Tours” don't actually take you to Alcatraz, then this will be a fun way to see the island when Alcatraz tickets are sold out.

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