To the inmates who were confined on this island prison, in operation from 1934 to 1963, their punishment was not only captivity but also psychological torture. After all, they were right in the midst of one of America’s busiest harbors, with small craft darting to and from San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and Sausalito, and they could probably hear the ceaseless procession of automobiles crossing the bridges and honking their horns. They could certainly see the ocean liners as they glided through the Golden Gate to far away ports – all reminding them that life was near, but freedom very far.

Alcatraz Cruises (Horn blower)

  • From Pier 33

  • 415 981 7625 (tickets and schedules)


  • Open daily

  • Adm: day tours – $15.25 child 5–11 years, $24.50 adult; night tours – $18.75 child 5–11 years, $31.50 adult; family packages available

The History of “The Rock”

The name “Alcatraz” derives from the Spanish alcatraces, for the birds that Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala observed here when he sailed into the Bay in 1775. In 1850, a presidential order set aside the island for the US Army to build a citadel, but defense became less of a priority and, in 1909, it became a military prison. In 1933 the Federal Government decided to open a maximum-security penitentiary here. Yet Alcatraz was not the “Devil’s Island” that many think it was – the conditions, such as one man per cell, were better than other jails.

View of Alcatraz Island from San Francisco

Picnicking is allowed on the dock, but you’ll have to bring your own food. The visitor center does sell water, however.

The weather is often blustery and cold on the island, and the trails and walkways rough. Wear warm clothes and strong, comfortable shoes.

The audioguide is well worth the extra few dollars, as is the ranger-guided tour.

You cannot visit Alcatraz independently – booking a guided tour with the ferry company is required.

Top 10 Features
  1. Lighthouse

    Alcatraz Island was the site of the very first lighthouse built on the West Coast in 1854. The original lighthouse was replaced in 1909 with an automated one, to tower above the new cell block.

  2. Cell Blocks

    The cell house contains four free-standing cell blocks. The complex was built by military prisoners in 1911 and was once the largest reinforced concrete building in the world. In all, there were 390 cells, but the population averaged only about 260 at any one time.

  3. Exercise Yard

    With a strict “no-talking” rule and the monotonous gloom of being cut off from life, prisoners whose good behavior qualified them for a turn around the walled-in Exercise Yard must have felt very relieved. Here they could walk, rather than pace in their cells, where they spent 16 to 23 hours every day.

  4. Control Room

    From this bunker-like facility, reinforced to withstand siege, the guards controlled the 24-hour electric security system. Next to the Control Room was the visiting area, where thick glass separated prisoners and visitors, and conversations were held over monitored telephones.

  5. D Block

    Any prisoner who transgressed the strict rules and regulations would be sent to D Block, the 42 solitary confinement cells kept entirely without light.

  6. Dining Room

    Meals were one of the few things prisoners had to look forward to, and they were generally well-fed, to quell rebellion. Note the sample menu on display at the kitchen entrance.

  7. Chapel

    On top of the guardhouse, a Mission-style military chapel was built during the 1920s. It was used as living quarters and a school, as well as a chapel. During the post-1930s prison phase, the building was used to house prison staff.

  8. Broadway

    The corridor that separates C and B blocks was jokingly nicknamed by prisoners after New York City’s glittering thoroughfare, famous for its nightlife. The intersection at the end was named “Times Square.”

  9. Visitor Center

    The Visitor Center is located in the old barracks building behind the ferry jetty. It houses a bookstore, exhibits, and a multimedia show providing a historical overview of Alcatraz, and an information counter.

  10. Warden’s House

    Until the house burned down in 1970, the warden’s home looked out to freedom. Designed in Mission Revival style, the home had 17 large rooms, and sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco lights.

Stories from The Rock

  1. Robert “Birdman” Stroud

    The most famous inmate was dubbed the “Birdman”, despite the fact that he was not permitted to conduct his avian studies during his 17 years here. Due to his violent nature Stroud spent most of those years in solitary.

  2. Birdman of Alcatraz

    This 1962 movie presented Stroud as a nature-loving ornithologist, bending historical fact to the service of a good story.

  3. Al Capone

    In 1934 Capone was among the first “official” shipment of prisoners. The infamous gangster was assigned menial jobs and treated like every other inmate.

    Al Capone
  4. George “Machine Gun” Kelly

    Jailed in 1933 for kidnapping, Kelly was given a life sentence, and was sent to Alcatraz for 17 years. He was considered a model prisoner by the officers.

  5. Alvin “Creepy” Karpis

    Karpis robbed his way through the Midwest between 1931 and 1936, and earned himself the title Public Enemy Number One. He was imprisoned on Alcatraz from 1936 to 1962. He committed suicide in 1979.

  6. Morton Sobell

    Charged with conspiracy to commit treason, Sobell arrived on Alcatraz in 1952 and spent five years as its most famous political prisoner, being a victim of J. Edgar Hoover’s witch hunt for Communist subversives. Once freed, Sobell returned to live in San Francisco, where he still resides today.

  7. Anglin Brothers

    The brothers, John and Clarence, are notable as the only two known inmates to successfully escape from The Rock.

  8. Escape from Alcatraz

    Starring Clint Eastwood as one of the Anglin brothers, again, this 1979 film is largely Hollywood fiction. However, the depiction of prison life is reportedly accurate.

  9. Frank Wathernam

    The last prisoner to leave Alcatraz, on March 21, 1963.

  10. The Rock

    Hollywood has never lost its fascination with Alcatraz, as can be seen in this 1997 action thriller, starring Sean Connery.

Native American Occupation

In 1969 Richard Oakes and 90 Native Americans landed on Alcatraz, set up camp, and demanded the government sell them the island for $24 worth of beads and red cloth. They claimed that this was the price their people had been paid in exchange for an island similar in size nearly 300 years earlier. The government considered forcibly removing the occupiers, but growing public support for the Indians forced officials to renew negotiations. However, in January 1970, while playing on the rooftop of one of the buildings, Oakes’ youngest daughter slipped and fell to her death; distraught, he and his family decided to abandon their claim. Sixty Native Americans remained, but as the stalemate dragged on, the majority slowly began to leave – only 15 chose to stay. In June 1970, fires ravaged the warden’s house, the recreation hall, the officers’ club, and the lighthouse. Following this devastation, government troops staged a pre-dawn raid. The remaining Indians were arrested and the 19-month Indian occupation came to an end.

Top 10 Escape Attempts
  1. December, 1937: Theodore Cole & Ralph Roe

  2. May, 1938: James Limerick, Jimmy Lucas, & Rufus Franklin

  3. January, 1939: Arthur “Doc” Barker, Dale Stamphill, William Martin, Henry Young, & Rufus McCain

  4. May, 1941: Joe Cretzer, Sam Shockley, Arnold Kyle, & Lloyd Barkdoll

  5. April, 1943: James Boarman, Harold Brest, Floyd Hamilton, & Fred Hunter

  6. July, 1945: John Giles

  7. May, 1946: Bernard Coy, Joe Cretzer, Marvin Hubbard, Sam Shockley, Miran Thompson, & Clarence Carnes

  8. September, 1958: Aaron Burgett & Clyde Johnson

  9. June, 1962: Frank Morris & John and Clarence Anglin

  10. December, 1962: John Paul Scott & Darl Parker

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