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History in Alcatraz: San Francisco’s penal highlight

The line of people zig-zagged its way to the ferry, moving forward inch by inch. It was May in San Francisco, faintly chilly, with a gray film of clouds covering the sky. My family and I were about to do what all tourists in San Francisco do – take a trip to Alcatraz.

“Alcatraz” is one of those names that floats resolutely in the American consciousness, conjuring up images of desolate rock faces and sneering 1930s gangsters plotting escape from behind the bars of their cells. Beyond the name, most people know little about it, as I did on the day I boarded the ferry. There is only one official cruise service that bears tourists fifteen minutes across San Francisco Bay to Alcatraz Island, now run by the National Park Service.


The clouds began to disperse and pale sunlight colored our view of the Bay. To our left was the Golden Gate Bridge, stark red against the blue skyline. As the island drew closer, I saw that it was greener than I expected. I had imagined it as a barren, punishing place, but shrubs and flowers grew thick on its slopes. The ferry docked and we stepped off to gaze at a shabby, three-story white building. I would soon learn this was Building 64, once home to military officers stationed on Alcatraz. On the wall of Building 64 was a faded sign that read “UNITED STATES PENITENTIARY”. Above the sign, red graffiti caught my eye even more: “INDIANS WELCOME”. What, I wondered, did Alcatraz have to do with Indians?

My family and I began our trek up the hill to what everyone comes to Alcatraz to see: the cellhouse. Meanwhile, we glanced over our brochures. Alcatraz Island has had a long history – from a defensive fort, to a military prison, to its most famous incarnation as a federal penitentiary dubbed “the Rock” or “Hellcatraz”, and at last to its occupation by Native American activists in the 70s. Unknown to most visitors, Alcatraz’s history is deeply entwined with Native American history. Hopi men who refused to assimilate into Western society were incarcerated there in the 1800s. After the federal prison was closed in the 1960s, the United States government didn’t know quite what to do with it, so for a few years they simply held onto a vacant island. Native American activists, however, wanted to build a cultural center there, and believed they had a right to it based on long-broken treaties between the government and the tribes. Activists occupied Alcatraz for about a year and a half before the movement petered out, and the property began its evolution into a lurid tourist attraction.

AlcatrazThe island was a strange mix of beauty and ugliness. Squat, rugged bushes, sprawling ivy, and flowers of all colors, from white to yellow to magenta, clutched the steep slopes and encroached on the buildings. Even the most well-preserved buildings wore faces of peeling paint, but some had become ruins, and not the glamorous, noble ruins of the type found in Greece or Rome. A social club where prison staff had once eaten, danced, and played billiards was now a concrete skeleton streaked by gull droppings.

My mom, an avid gardener, noticed a National Park staff woman tending to succulents and stopped to chat. According to her, Alcatraz was a park in flux. A few years earlier, the government began major efforts to renovate the salt-damaged structures, conserve the island’s natural plant life, and help endangered bird colonies flourish. As interesting as this was, we soon continued our journey to the cellhouse, drawn in, like everybody else, by the allure of dastardly crime lords and daring escapes.

We entered the prison through the shower room, a large, open space without an ounce of privacy for inmates. We picked up our headsets so we could listen to the audio tour. A gloomy narrator guided us into the cell blocks, where the cells were stacked in three stories and painted in pastel pinks and blues better suited for a child’s Easter party than a federal prison. Occasionally, the narrator read testimony from real inmates about the harsh discipline and crushing isolation. Each prisoner was confined to a rectangle about the width of their arm-span. If they broke the rules, they might be thrown in “the Hole” to spend up to 20 days in complete darkness.

During the tour, I removed my headphones a couple of times. There was something eerie about the way everyone milled around each other in complete silence. This had long been a place that fed on disconnection – prisoners’ worlds were shrunk to a rock guarded by the hungry depths of the bay, and Alcatraz’s notorious reputation was fueled largely by the mystery that comes from distance. Even today, a tourist’s journey through Alcatraz was one that felt very alone, shared between me and the narrator in my ears.


At the end of the tour, we were funneled into a gift shop, complete with baseball caps, striped inmate t-shirts, and even Alcatraz “fog globes”. Soon, we were back on the ferry, headed towards civilization. I couldn’t help but feel like this National Park wasn’t quite at ease with its own past. Now that Alcatraz is a monument to reflection, it seems unsure of just how to do so, stuck between representing history in its totality or leaning into the Alcatraz of pop culture’s narrow memory, land of shadows and searchlights and Machine Gun Kelly. Alcatraz Island’s complex story is largely blacked out by the bleak film-noir shadow of Alcatraz the American myth. But the deeper questions of this place’s past – ones of power, justice, and rebellion – perhaps cut closer to the unsightly seams of the American experience than we are willing to look.

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