Part 2: THE ROCK
The Big Lockup
After Ranger Benny’s presentation about Alcatraz’s political prisoners, I climb uphill (trams are available) past cannons, barb wire and beneath a water tower to the main facility where audio equipment for “Doing Time: The Alcatraz Cellhouse Tour” are dispensed (at no extra charge). The taped exposition and explanation of the highly informative, entertaining audio tour are edited to be closely linked to what the lines of headphone-adorned visitors behold, unit by unit, while moving through the cellblocks.
Perhaps the most shocking thing is how Lilliputian these cells that held 1,500 of America’s Gullivers of crime are. Many of those incarcerated at Alcatraz were Public Enemy Number One on the FBI’s hit list of “Most Wanted” criminals, including Al “Scarface” Capone, “Machine Gun” Kelly, Meyer “Mickey” Cohen, James “Whitey” Bulger and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis of Ma Barker’s gang. Other notorious notables in the who’s who of lawbreakers that served hard time at The Rock included Robert Stroud, portrayed by Burt Lancaster in John Frankenheimer’s 1962 classic The Birdman of Alcatraz. (A number of Alcatraz’s infamous inmates had catchy nicknames and were depicted on the silver screen, attesting to America’s fascination with gangsters.)
Following the prompts of the “Doing Time” audio tour, a perp walk (so to speak) through A- to D-block reveals the cellblocks to be three-stories high, consisting of grim rows of cheek-by-jowl narrow cages behind steel bar doors, the clanging of which suggests finality. Some of these doorways to hell are deliberately left open so visitors can enter to experience a brief taste of bleak prison life. Certain cells offered convicts tantalizing glimpses of San Francisco and the Bay; while these were the cubicles of choice for some, others were depressed by seeing an outside world they were, literally, barred from.
A typical 9-feet-long, 5-feet-wide, 7-feet-high cell includes a cot, sink, toilet and table attached to the wall intended for a sole occupant. Many of the chambers are dilapidated, while others are maintained in better condition. Most cells are bare, although when they were occupied, some were decorated in ways that reflected inhabitants’ individuality, such as a painter’s, which served as a dwelling place and art studio, with an easel, tubes of paint, sketches and books.
Cellblock D’s solitary confinement units, or “the hole,” were more draconian – in addition to the inner steel bar doors with slots for food to be served through, there were solid outer doors that hermetically sealed those detained within off from the world.
The cellhouse’s walls and iron prison doors are adorned with photos of captives and their captors, including prison guards who narrate the audio tour, along with explanatory wall texts.
The cells where Frank Morris and the Anglim brothers attempted to bust out of the big house in 1962, in part by digging through aging walls with spoons, are clearly marked by “wanted” posters for the escapees, photos and text. The daring attempted breakout was dramatized in the 1979 Clint Eastwood movie aptly entitled Escape from Alcatraz.
Al Capone, who has been depicted in about 50 productions by luminaries ranging (and raging) from Rod Steiger to Jason Robards to Robert De Niro, served his time in cell #181, on the second story of B-Block. Although the door to Scarface’s place of confinement is open when I arrive, tour guides aren’t taking visitors up a wind staircase to peruse it today, alas.
However, tourists can go to the visiting room, where jailbirds were separated from guests by glass windows. One enters the dining hall through “Times Square,” a corridor so monikered because above the entranceway to the mess hall is a big clock. A surprising fact I learn on the audio tour is that the food served at Alcatraz was the best provided in the entire federal penitentiary system. Nearby, northwest of D-block, is the recreation yard, where visitors are also allowed to go.
Although Alcatraz is an essential ingredient of American folklore and popular culture, it was a federal pen for less than 30 years. Many inmates were high profile, but actually only about 1,500 prisoners did time while the Bureau of Prisons administered The Rock. At the prison’s peak, just 302 inmates served there during the same period – at New York’s Rikers Island, around 18,000 people have been admitted in 2022 alone.
At the conclusion of the audio tour of Alcatraz is a harrowing exhibition entitled “The Big Lockup: Mass Incarceration in the United States.” The thought-provoking display contends that in the land of the free “currently 2.3 million people are behind bars, more than any other country in the world.” No wonder the Birdman of Alcatraz became a jailbird advocating for reforming America’s archaic penal system. The National Park Service co-presented the exhibit with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which “Alcatraz is part of… [GGNRA is] a proud member of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience… part of a global network of historic sites, museums and memory initiatives dedicated to remembering past struggles and contemporary legacies.” (See: www.nps.gov/goga/thebiglockup.htm .)
Captivity at “The Rock” was so miserable that tough guy Al Capone confessed, “Alcatraz has got me licked.” Machine Gun Kelly reflected, “These five words seem written on the walls of my cell: Nothing can be worth this!”
It is a sunny autumn afternoon and happy to be back in the outside world, I stroll around the 1.25-square mile isle, drinking in the views of San Francisco Bay. Yet I’m relieved when I do what so many Public Enemy Number Ones were unable to do: I escape from Alcatraz, boarding a ferry that carries me back to Pier 33. For over an hour I promenade down the sun-drenched Embarcadero for two miles until I reach the Delancey Street Restaurant, an eatery run by “the country’s largest self-help residential organization for people who have hit bottom to completely rebuild their lives.” (See: www.delanceystreetfoundation.org/enterrestaurant.php .)
At Delancey Street Restaurant I dine al fresco in the outdoor patio with my friends Mira Larkin, granddaughter of the Hollywood Ten’s blacklisted screenwriter Albert Maltz, and Margot Pepper, whose father, leftist producer George Pepper, fled repression in the USA before the House Un-American Activities Committee could get its mitts on him. Pepper became a political refugee in Mexico – where he went on to produce several Luis Bunuel films and was joined by other Hollywood exiles, including Maltz after he served his contempt of Congress sentence at a federal prison.
Following a meal of delicious food and even better conversation, I return to my room at the history-steeped Beacon Grand. Originally named the Sir Francis Drake when it was built during the Roaring Twenties, the 21-story hotel located near Union Square reopened in 2022 with a new name, but its Old-World charm remained intact. Full of European elegance, including murals painted by hand and gold leaf ceilings, the Beacon is like a continental grand hotel. I sleep comfortably and deeply that night, and in the morning enjoy complimentary pastries and coffee in the Beacon Lounge, fortifying me for my United Airlines flight that afternoon to Tahiti, where I’ll board the Aranui passenger/ freighter bound for Pitcairn Island.
When you go:
Aranui: www.aranui.com/en (800)972-7268
United Airlines: www.united.com (800)864-8331
John’s Grill: www.johnsgrill.com (415)986-0069
Delancey Street Restaurant: www.delanceystreetfoundation.org/enterrestaurant.php
Hilton San Francisco Union Square: (415)771-1400 1-800-HILTONS.
Beacon Grand, A Union Square Hotel: www.beacongrand.com (866)377-9412.
Written by: Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell has traveled widely, to more than 100 Pacific Islands, Asia, Europe, Mexico and Africa. His travel writing and photography has appeared in: Islands, Action Asia, Travel Age West, Skin Inc, Porthole, Far East Traveler, Asian Diver, L.A. Times, Toronto Globe & Mail, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, Pacific Business News, E — The Environmental Magazine, L.A. Reader, etc. Rampell is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Journal. Rampell was interviewed in Tahiti for the CBS newsmagazine 48 Hours, and National Public Radio’s Savvy Traveler interviewed Rampell about the Marquesas Islands. Rampell acted as a consultant for, and appears as the most used on-camera interviewee, in the 2005 Australian-European co-production Hula Girls, which has been seen by millions of viewers on Dutch, German, French, Swiss, Australian, etc., television on the Avro and Arte networks. Rampell’s Polynesian daughter Marina is a singer in Australia.