Perhaps it’s my job as a reporter. It could be my obsession with the Investigation Discovery channel. Or maybe it’s just sick human nature. Whatever the reason, when I planned my trip to the west coast, visiting Alcatraz was right at the top of the list.
This morning, I caught the 9 a.m. ferry from Pier 33 to beat the rush of tourists (irony noted) and rode the mile and a half to the former penitentiary. Looming so close to the Golden Gate Bridge, the island is a spooky and jarring presence on the city’s skyline.
The island, which operated as a prison for society’s most frightening criminals between 1933 and 1963, housed an average of 260 inmates, with the guards’ children living just feet away on the other side of the prison walls.
I was led room to room by an audio tour – undoubtedly the best audio tour I’ve taken. It was narrated by several former inmates and guards, with historians chipping in to create a detailed, haunting picture of life on an island so tantalizingly close to civilization. Alcatraz was so near San Francisco that women’s laughter carried across the water on New Year’s Eve, torturing the men condemned to years alone in a 9ft by 8ft cell.
There were also stories of escapes – both successful and those with bloodier outcomes – and insights into how the men passed their time – crocheting, playing musical instruments, each reading an average of 100 books a year and speaking to a maximum of just one visitor a month.
The visit was a highlight of my west coast trip, and not at all touristy as I’d feared. The island has been largely untouched and there’s not a neon fast-food chain in sight.
And IN A REAL BONUS the visit meant I got to step where Ed Harris once stood; the silver-haired dreamboat starred in the film The Rock about the prison in 1996. I mean, just look at that pout.
Oh and then I went and did this.