I'm on a high speed ferry, racing across San Francisco Bay, wide white spray billowing over the waves, as we leave the city's skyline behind us.
The Bay Bridge and iconic Golden Gate Bridge span the glistening blue waters of the bay on either side, but we're heading out towards the forbidding cliffs of
Alcatraz Island, a Military fortress since the Civil War and from 1934-1963, the most notorious Federal Penitentiary in the United States. Now, along with the Statue of Liberty in New York and the Grand Canyon, it is one of the three most popular attractions maintained by the US National Park system, and I'm one of boatloads of tourists on a timed visit, this sunny warm fall day.
Arriving at dockside, it must have been a daunting experience for prisoners with the tantalizing view of San Francisco only 1.25 miles away, so near and yet so far and for many, never to be seen again. We are greeted by a guide who welcomes us for the start of a tour like no other, and we proceed up the winding road, past the guardhouse and administrative buildings to the windswept cell-house block at the summit. You can pick up a recorded tour or follow on your own; either way, it is a grim view of incarceration on Alcatraz.
But today, we will experience something a little different as the guide informs us that a former inmate, William (Bill) Baker - Alcatraz Prisoner # 1259 is on the island talking to visitors and signing his memoir in the bookshop at the end of the tour. I can't wait to add this unusual experience to my visit. I didn't think anyone ever left alive, but the average sentence was 8 - 10 years and for some, the experience was so soul-destroying that they went straight for the rest of their lives. Sadly, Bill was not one of them.
First, we file past the cells, concrete blocks only 5' x 9' containing a pallet bed on one side, folding table and plank bench on the other, a small wash basin and toilet with a shelf lining the back and steel bars at the front. We saw the punishment block and "the Hole" where troublesome prisoners like hardened criminals such as Al Capone and Robert Stroud, known as the Birdman of Alcatraz, served time. This block was for the worst of the worst.
During the 30 years that the prison operated, there were four wardens, each of whom tried to soften conditions slightly. Prisoners with lighter sentences, nearing the end of their time or who had earned good behaviour privileges, made the best of it, brightening up their cells with landscape paintings (some were talented artists), playing an accordion, working in the prison factories, gardening or improvising ballgames in the exercise yard.
Card games were popular. Bill learned to play bridge, and sports were eagerly followed on supervised radio programs. There was a well-stocked library. Many prisoners serving time for tax fraud and other white collar crimes read serious books. The highlight of the day was mealtime, with excellent food, something the wardens insisted on along with a brief opportunity to socialize. Meals lasted only 20 minutes as the dining room could also be the most dangerous place, with knives and forks easily available as weapons, should a fight break out. In fact, four men were actually killed with kitchenware. Few left with their soul intact, but like all community living, it was a community, says Bill. Inmates bonded or became sworn enemies. They looked out for each other, and he made some lifelong friends.
In 30 years there was only one serious
riot in 1946 when several people, both inmates and guards were killed. Several more tried to escape, jumping into the cold waters of the bay to swim to shore, but most drowned. Three bodies have never been found. They were presumed drowned or perhaps they made it to South America! No one will ever know.
Our tour takes us through the mess hall, recreation yard and the ruined warden's house, destroyed by fire in 1970 as well as the ancient lighthouse, which began operating in 1854 and was the first on the Pacific coast.
Now, the island is less forbidding, and there's a garden rehabilitation project with colourful flower beds dotted around as well as a volunteer effort to restore the prison gardens and birdlife once tended by inmates and prison personnel as a recreational project.
Next comes the moment I have been waiting for that adds deep authenticity to my visit. We are back at the bookstore and surrounded by books, sits William (Bill) Baker, one of the few former inmates still alive able to tell his tale. There are quite a few visitors lining up for a signed edition of his memoir - Alcatraz #1259, and soon it's my turn. He graciously poses with me for a picture as he signs my book. Does it seem like yesterday? I ask, Yes, he replies "I'm a legend."
There's a sign at the entrance to the cell block - "Break the rules, and go to prison; break the prison rules and go to Alcatraz," and that is how young William G. Baker, prisoner #1259 landed there, age 23 after bouncing himself out of three other prisons. While his crimes were not severe, mostly the result of youthful high spirits and boredom, his prison infractions were, and during his years in Alcatraz from 1957-60, he learned survival skills, including bridge from a master bridge player and the art of counterfeiting from a master cheque forger, leading to many years as a career criminal and incarceration in several more prisons around the country.
Bill is courteous as he exchanges a few words during the book signing. Now 80 years old and living in a seniors residence in Ohio, he appears hard but not bitter and is unapologetic for a life of crime. His book tells it like it is. Some of the language and content is prison speak, the words of a hardened criminal and not for everyone, but it is a reflective look at a life that no one should have lived, much less survived.
As the ferry carries us back to the mainland, we reflect on our thought-provoking visit and
"Escape from Alcatraz." You can purchase Bill's book, Alcatraz #1259 by William G. Baker, Price 16.95 on
Alcatraz Tour (HD) 2016
Alcatraz - A Brief History
Tess Bridgwater is a travel writer who lives in southwestern Ontario, not far from Oxford County. She writes for the Record and other publications in Kitchener/Waterloo County, national magazines and is a member of SATW, the Society of American Travel Writers
Alcatraz Ferries leave from Pier 33 on the harbour front. Parking is limited and expensive and it is best to take public transport which is frequent, inexpensive, and a fun way to see the city. The short ferry ride across San Francisco Bay offers a great view of the skyline. Tickets must be purchased for timed visits. Several tours are available, with the most popular day tour costing $37.25 for an adult ticket. Tours last about 2.5 hours. Arrive early as there is usually a lineup.
Alcatraz Island tours depart from and return to Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing, located along San Francisco's northern waterfront promenade, on The Embarcadero near the intersection of The Embarcadero and Bay Streets. It is located approximately 1/4 mile from San Francisco's beloved Fisherman's Wharf. Walk, bike, ride public transportation, or drive (as a last resort)...easy access from anywhere around the Bay!