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Alcatraz: Goosebumps and charm

R. Berto Wedhatama

The Jakarta Post

San Francisco  /  Fri, April 12, 2019  /  06:18 pm
Alcatraz: Goosebumps and charm

The Rock: A mockup features the prison compound and a lighthouse built on Alcatraz Island, known as “The Rock”. (JP/R. Berto Wedhatama )

Samsung Electronics Indonesia invited a number of journalists, including from The Jakarta Post, on a tour around San Francisco, including to Alcatraz.

 


Alcatraz Island and its infamous prison compound offer an equal amount of history and beauty.

Alcatraz gained a reputation as the most secure and feared penitentiary in the United States soon after it opened in 1933 – one that stayed with it until its closure in 1963. The prison once held 1,576 of America’s most notorious criminals, including infamous Chicago gangster Al Capone.

Given its reputation as a harsh and strict facility, Alcatraz served as the main inspiration of a handful of Hollywood movies, including Clint Eastwood’s Escape from Alcatraz ( 1979 ) and The Rock ( 1996 ) starring Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery.

Built on the rocky Alcatraz Island 2 kilometers off the shore of San Francisco, California, the three-story prison comprises four cell blocks, a prison warden office, guest rooms, a library and a barber shop. Each cell measures 2.7 meters long, 1.5 m wide and 2.1 m high.

Of all the cell blocks, D-Block was the most feared by inmates. It includes isolation cells in which inmates were placed as a punishment for bad behavior, such as attempting to escape or engaging in a brawl. Known as “the hole”, each isolation cell was cold, damp and devoid of light.

Punishment: The dark and damp isolation cells of D-Block were used to discipline inmates for bad behavior.Punishment: The dark and damp isolation cells of D-Block were used to discipline inmates for bad behavior. (JP/R. Berto Wedhatama )

Though Alcatraz had the most advanced security of the time, 36 inmates tried their luck to escape the notorious prison. Alcatraz also recorded 14 breakout attempts throughout 29 years of its history as a federal prison.  

The prison saw a legendary escape attempt by three inmates in 1962, when John Anglin, Clarence Anglin and Frank Morris managed to get out of their cells and leave the island in a makeshift raft. Whether they reached land remains unknown. The men were reported dead although their bodies have never been discovered.

Long before the prison was constructed there, Alcatraz Island has held a significant place in US history. It is the site of the oldest operating lighthouse on the west coast (built in 1854). When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, the island became the largest military site on the west coast and used to imprison Confederate sympathizers and privateers.

It later became a military fort and military detention facility until the US Justice Department turned it into a federal prison in 1934.

After the prison closed down, a group of Native Americans from the United Indians of All Tribes occupied the island for nearly two years, demanding the construction of an Indian education center, ecology center and cultural center by the provisions of the Treaty of Fort Laramie between the US and Sioux tribe in 1868.

Center of resistance: A group of Native Americans from the United Indians of All Tribes stayed in the prison compound during their occupation of Alcatraz Island from 1969 to 1971. Center of resistance: A group of Native Americans from the United Indians of All Tribes stayed in the prison compound during their occupation of Alcatraz Island from 1969 to 1971. (JP/R. Berto Wedhatama )

The occupation ended in 1971 and a year later, Alcatraz became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.   

Once a place of darkness and gloom, Alcatraz is now a major tourist destination in San Francisco. The small island, declared a National Historic Landmark in 1986, welcomes 2 million tourists every year.

To reach Alcatraz, visitors can take a 20-minute ferry ride from Pier 33 near Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco.

In the former prison, they can tour several rooms and cells arranged based on their periodization, such as the Military Period, the Federal Prison and the Indian Occupation. You can also take a look at some of the other historical sites nearby, such as Building 64, the first building constructed on the island.

No choice: In this room, new inmates received their prison uniforms. No choice: In this room, new inmates received their prison uniforms. (JP/R. Berto Wedhatama )

The island is also known for its charming gardens, in particular, the Officers’ Row and Rose Terrace gardens. Not many visitors realize that the island is a premier spot for viewing western gulls and cormorants.

The island is open throughout the year except on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year.