What is Alcatraz?Alcatraz Island is about 1.25 miles (2 km) away from the shores of San Francisco and has been used as the site of a lighthouse, military base, military prison, and federal prison before being designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1986. Its most famous use was as the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, which was specifically used to house the most difficult prisoners from institutions around the nation. Due to the dangerous nature of the freezing water and tricky currents surrounding the island, the prison became known as inescapable, and although there were many attempts over the years, there’s no evidence that any of the potential escapees made it to the mainland alive. The prison closed in 1963 after another escape attempt and the publication of reports that Alcatraz needed an expensive refurbishment in order to stay open, plus operating costs for the island prison had always been higher than for other penitentiaries. From 1969 to 1971 the island was occupied by Native American protesters who argued that any abandoned or out-of-use federal land should be returned to the native people from whom they were acquired. During this time some of the buildings were damaged, and visitors will still be able to see graffiti from the protests on some walls as you visit the site. Today various American Indigenous groups hold ceremonies on the island, in particular on Columbus Day and Thanksgiving Day. It’s also become one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist destinations, with 1.8 million tourists visiting annually. The island and the prison have a unique position in the American cultural imagination, featuring in plenty of books, TV shows, and movies.
What will we see on a tour?After arriving at the dock, you’ll walk up to the main prison building where you can pick up the audio guide. The guide takes about 35 minutes to listen to in full and will help you to find your way around the cellhouse. Afterward, you’ll see the recreation yard, the water tower, the lighthouse (where you’ll get one of the best views across the bay to San Francisco), and the Warden’s House. The Night Tour is slightly longer, beginning with a narrated boat ride around the whole island before dropping visitors off at the pier. You’ll then be let off the boat in smaller groups ahead of a guided walk up to the cellhouse with a Ranger. At the cellhouse, you’ll take the same audio guided tour available during the Day Tours, but then you’ll be directed to a couple of extra areas which aren’t open during the daytime. These areas vary depending on the day but can include the medical area above the cells and the solitary confinement cells in the basement. There’ll be plenty of Rangers on hand to answer any questions you might have!
Will we get to see Al Capone’s cell?You will! Al Capone was one of the most famous inmates of Alcatraz, spending 5 years of his prison sentence on the island. He wasn’t a particularly dangerous inmate, nor was he planning to escape, but it had proved impossible to stop him from continuing his mob activities from prisons on the mainland and the authorities decided to make an example out of him. Capone’s cell isn’t marked by any signs, but it’s not too difficult to find it by yourself - it’s cell 181 in B-Block. You might need to ask a member of staff to point it out to you since the numbering can be a bit tricky. If you take a tour that goes to the prison hospital then you’ll also be in a space that housed the legendary gangster, since his health began to decline rapidly during his stay on the island and he spent a lot of time in the infirmary during his last year of imprisonment.
What was Alcatraz before it was used as a prison?The island of Alcatraz was first ‘owned’ by Julian Workman, who was given it by Mexican governor Pio Pico in 1846 on the condition that he build a lighthouse on it. It was later bought by the US government, who decreed it should be a military reservation and built a fort on the island which was completed in 1858 and housed the first garrison of 200 soldiers. During the Civil War, the fortress mounted up to 105 cannons, despite only having the capacity to fire a handful of them at once! Being so heavily fortified, it became the ideal place to imprison Confederate prisoners and sympathizers, but it never had any reason to fire the cannons in anger. The Civil War was also a time of intense tunneling on the island, with several passageways still being usable today. From 1859 to 1933, the military base also functioned as a military prison, housing soldiers guilty of crimes as well as prisoners of war. During World War I the prison also housed conscientious objectors.
How do we get to Alcatraz Island?The island can only be reached by ferries run by Alcatraz Cruises, who also run ferries to the nearby Angel Island. The ferry ride is usually very smooth (if cold), and the various vessels are all wheelchair-accessible. Make sure to arrive in good time for your ferry back to the mainland, as spaces are allocated on a first-come-first-served basis.
Can we stay overnight in a cell?It’s extremely unlikely that you’ll be able to stay on the island overnight - there are occasional events which allow visitors to stay in Cell Block D (the only one to have had asbestos and lead-based paint removed), but they’re few and far between. Usually, they’re organized as fund-raising activities by non-profit organizations and are assigned via a lottery, with a maximum of 600 places available.
How long does a trip to Alcatraz take?It’s recommended that you plan at least 3 hours for your trip to Alcatraz. The ferry trip during the Day Tour takes about 12 to 15 minutes, and then it will take you about 2 to 3 hours to see everything - longer if you decide to stop and chat to the Rangers, or if you’re taking the Behind the Scenes tour. Add to that waiting in line for the ferry back to the mainland, and you’re probably looking at closer to 4 hours, or a whole morning or afternoon.
Is a trip to Alcatraz suitable for children?Generally, children do find a trip to Alcatraz interesting and not too frightening, but there might be less to interest children under the age of 5. Even just the excitement of boarding the ferry and being on the island will be plenty to thrill some kids! There’s also more to the island than just the history of the prison - kids will learn all about the families of the prison guards who lived on the island, including children just like them! Parents should ask a Ranger on arrival for more details about the Junior Ranger workbook or scavenger hunt, designed to help children aged 5 to 13 engage with everything they see, from the prison buildings to the birds and trees which live on the island. If they complete the training then they’ll even be sworn in as Junior Rangers before they leave the island! Parents should note that children under the age of 12 cannot join the Behind the Scenes tour, and all visitors under 18 should be accompanied by an adult aged 21 or over.
Did anyone ever escape from Alcatraz?The Rock was renowned for being impossible to escape from, even though prisoners had escaped during the time it was a military prison. While it was a federal prison there were 14 attempted escapes which involved 36 prisoners, several of whom had previously escaped from prisons on the mainland and were experienced at the art of deceiving guards. Of the 36 would-be escapees, 23 were caught, 6 were shot and died, and 2 drowned. 5 men managed to disappear entirely, but it’s unlikely that they made it to the mainland. Evidence suggests that their boat was probably destroyed and they also drowned in the bay, with the currents taking their bodies out to sea. During Alcatraz’s time as a federal prison, therefore, there was never an officially successful escape attempt.
Is Alcatraz accessible for visitors with additional mobility needs?Alcatraz is extremely steep, so visitors using wheelchairs probably won’t manage the hill to the prison building without assistance. For wheelchair users and other visitors with limited mobility, an electric shuttle is available (S.E.A.T.) to take guests from the dock to the prison building. Seats are allocated on a first-come-first-served basis, and companions of visitors using the shuttle are advised to walk and meet the rider at the prison building. Children in strollers can’t be accommodated on the S.E.A.T. The dock area, the main floor of the prison building, the museum displays, the theater, and all bookstores are wheelchair accessible.