/ Attractions / Behind Bars in Historic Alcatraz Penitentiary, San Francisco

Behind Bars in Historic Alcatraz Penitentiary, San Francisco

Nicole Voltapetti on January 22, 2014 - 3:28 pm in Attractions, Historical, Places to visit

Mystery, intrigue, and ghosts – these are some of the common themes surrounding the infamous Alcatraz Island.  Located 1 mile off the sunny shores of San Francisco Bay, you’ll find one of the most notorious prisons, the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. This is a must see historical attraction to see while visiting San Francisco, California.



Initially established as a military post in the 1850s, the island quickly became utilized in a more criminal fashion.  As a military fort, the complex protected the San Francisco Bay and also served as a jail, incarcerating military insubordinates along with Spanish and Indian captives.  The island proved to be an ideal spot for detaining prisoners and by the mid-1930s, Alcatraz Island became home to the nation’s first maximum security penitentiary.  Surrounded by the frigid waters of the Pacific Ocean, escaping the island was no easy feat.

For nearly 3 decades this island served as the “prison systems prison,” garnering national fascination due to the penitentiary’s inmates and the strict rules surrounding the jail.  The convicts inhabiting these cells were those in need of great discipline compared to what ordinary federal jails could provide.  Many of the inmates were considered to be major threats to society, including criminals such as George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Al “Scarface” Capone, and Robert “Birdman” Stroud.


Al Capone

Inmates were allowed 1 visit per month, pending the warden’s approval, but were not allowed to discuss what prison life was like.  Their visitations were screened so that the rules would be adhered to.  To add to island’s mystique, the media was also strongly discouraged from breaching the island’s shores.

Inside the Jail Tour

Be a jailbird for a day and explore the narrow cells and prison facilities once bustling with inmates.  Observe remnants from the prison’s most famous escape by peering into an escapee’s cell, featuring their manmade escape hole and plaster dummy head used to dupe the guards.

The downstairs dungeon and solitary confinement cells are sure to pique your interest.  Make sure a ghost doesn’t follow you home though, as those sites are well known for their paranormal activity.

The recreational area proved to be bittersweet for inmates.  Prisoners tried to enjoy time outside, but views of San Francisco reminded them of their captivity.

Inside the jail

Inside the jail



Ferry to Alсatraz island

Ferry to Alсatraz island

Board a ferry and cross the calming bay waters onto Alcatraz Island, offering both daytime and evening tours of the prison.  All visits to the jail include a 45 minute audio tour, providing guests with an inclusive look as to what life was like in Alcatraz.  Peruse the jail cells while listening to former correctional officers and inmates relive their past through detailed stories and descriptions of their time on the island.

Daytime tours are great for those looking to enjoy the island’s flower garden and avian life, in addition to the penitentiary.  The early bird tour departs at 8:45 AM and is the first tour of the day, making it a wonderful option for those who want to explore the island when it’s not so crowded.

Evening tours focus more on the prison aspect of the island, beginning with a narrated boat tour that escorts visitors from the San Francisco Bay to Alcatraz.  Enjoy a breathtaking, sunset view of the Golden Gate Bridge while listening to entertaining narration on the Alcatraz ferry.  Inside the jail, special evening programs captivate guests by creating an intimate look as to what life was like behind the prison walls.

Side note:  Ghosts and ghouls are no strangers to Alcatraz.  If you embark on an evening tour, be weary of old inmates that still consider the prison home…

Here’s a  video detailing the jail’s haunted activity.


Hidden Gems

The island is well known for its famous prison, but many visitors are unaware that Alcatraz is also a national park.  The island features newly renovated flower gardens and also provides a great opportunity for bird watching.  Bring your camera and capture shots of the beautiful flora and wildlife, adding a touch of enchantment to the island.


Alcatraz Island is also a major historic site in lieu of the Indian occupation that took place here in 1969.  For a year and a half, Indian occupiers made the abandoned island their home in hopes of eliciting federal reform towards Indian policies.  The island still bears much of the graffiti created during the occupation, serving as a reminder of the protest.

The effects of the occupation were far reaching, including millions of acres of land being returned to Indian peoples as well as the establishment of 52 government policies supporting American Indians and Indian tribes.


Visit the Alcatraz national park site for more info, and take a tour.

Photos courtesy of Dollar photo club and Wikimedia Commons.


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