Fenton & White Go To Alcatraz

We started our final full day in San Francisco with a breakfast at IHOP.  IHOP stands for International House Of Pancakes.  It is an inexpensive chain restaurant and every breakfast seems to be coated in loads of whip cream and sugar.  Pete had never been, and I figured it was time for him to participate in an American tradition for millions of people.

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PETE GETS READY FOR SOME IHOP BREAKFAST

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CHOICES OF SYRUPS INCLUDE STRAWBERRY, BUTTERY, BLUEBERRY OR TRADITIONAL

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PETE CAN’T BELIEVE THE SIZE OF THE PLATE, OR THE AMOUNT OF SWEET BLUEBERRY TREACLE AND WHIP CREAM ON THE PANCAKES IN THE FOREGROUND.

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Our breakfast filled us up, and we decided we had better get up and move before the inevitable sugar crash descended.  We had a 15 minute walk to Pier 33 where we would take a boat to San Francisco’s most famous attraction … Alcatraz.

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BOATS FERRY YOU ACROSS THE 1 1/2 MILE CHANNEL BETWEEN ALCATRAZ AND THE MAINLAND.

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It is no surprise that advance reservations to visit Alcatraz are highly recommended.  In the summer, tours quickly sell out months in advance, and even in the shoulder seasons specialty tours sell out. We had hoped to take a night tour where they lock down the cell block, but tickets online were all gone by the time we went to book.  There were still plenty of tickets available for going to Alcatraz in the day, but because it is a small island, only 6000 people per day can visit.  If you plan on going, book in advance online at http://www.alcatrazcruises.com/

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A SIGN AT THE DOCK SHOWS US WHAT AWAITS ON ALCATRAZ ISLAND

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Tickets are timed, and we had heard that if you wanted to make the most of your visit, it was best to go earlier in the morning as it is a little less crowded.  When you go out to the island, you must go on the boat scheduled for the time on your ticket.   Once you get to Alcatraz you can stay as long as you like (within the prescribed hours), and catch any boat departing from the ferry docks back to the mainland.  Our ticket was for 10 AM and we arrived a little early and enjoyed looking at the exhibits.  When it is time to join the line to board the ferry, they send you through the inevitable photo booth where you pose against a green screen, and when you get back you can buy a picture of yourself on Alcatraz.  The picture they took (which we viewed on our return) was lovely, but at $25 we chose to pass.

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EXHIBITS AT PIER 33 KEEP YOU ENTERTAINED WHILE YOU WAIT FOR YOUR DEPARTURE TIME.

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THIS ELECTRONIC EXHIBIT SHOWS HOW THE BOATS USE GREEN POWER TO GENERATE LIGHTING FOR THE FERRIES USING SOLAR AND WIND POWER.

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THE VIEWS OF SAN FRANCISCO ON THE WAY OVER ARE STUNNING

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THE GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE IS CLEARLY VISIBLE ON THE CROSSING

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WHEN YOU ARRIVE IT IS A BIT DAUNTING

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12 acres is a fair amount of island to walk.  When you first get off the boat, volunteers from Parks Services greet you and identify any special talks that will be happening through the day.  They also let you know that there is no eating, drinking or smoking on Alcatraz except in a small picnic area near the dock, so eat before you come over.  These rules are strictly enforced.  They encourage you to start your visit with a film that plays near the area where you get off. It gives some historical context of the island and the jail. From there, there is a steep climb up a series of sloped concrete ramps that take you up to the cell block.  For those who have trouble with walking, shuttle services are offered in a small tram. The name “Alcatraz” has become associated with fear, but it had a much more innocent beginning.  It was named by Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala  in 1755, who named it “La Isla de los Alcatraces” which translates to “Island of the Pelicans”.  Prior to the island’s use as a military barracks and prison, it had a large population of sea birds … and it still does.

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ALCATRAZ IS A BIRDER’S PARADISE.  DURING NESTING SEASON, CERTAIN PARTS OF THE ISLAND ARE OUT OF BOUNDS, BUT THERE IS STILL PLENTY TO SEE

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THE GUARD TOWER AS YOU WALK TOWARDS THE PRISON IS IMPOSING

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VISITORS CLIMB THE STEEP CONCRETE ACCESS TO THE CELL BLOCK

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PETE PREPARES TO GO TO PRISON

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THE ENTRY AREA TAKES YOU PAST THE OPEN ROOM WHERE ALL OF THE PRISONERS TOOK THEIR WEEKLY SHOWERS

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PRISONERS WOULD HAVE TRADED IN THEIR CLOTHES FOR A PRISON UNIFORM

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When you reach the cell block, you are handed an audio guide that will lead you through the prison and ensure you don’t miss anything.  It is narrated by a former warden, but also has interviews with former inmates, staff, and families of the wardens.  It is truly fascinating.  If you do the tour quickly it will only take 45 minutes, but if you stop at the many signs and take pictures along the way, expect to take an hour to 90 minutes to explore this strange world.

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THE LINE MOVES QUICKLY TO GET YOUR AUDIO GUIDE BEFORE YOU ENTER THE CELL BLOCK

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THE PRISON CELLS ARE SMALL AND STERILE

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CERTAIN AREAS OF THE JAIL ARE SAID TO BE HAUNTED.  THIS IS ONE OF THE ISOLATION CELLS WITH NO LIGHT KNOWN AS “THE HOLE.”

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VARIOUS AREAS OF THE CELL BLOCK HAVE NAMES – IN THIS CASE              TIMES SQUARE

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PRISONERS COULD CUSTOMIZE THEIR CELLS AND SOME TOOK UP KNITTING AND CROCHETING TO PASS THE TIME.

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There is little question that Alcatraz was a difficult place to be, and the men who were sent there were serious criminals.  What the photos can’t depict is the stories that are told through the audio guide.  In one case a child of a warden talks about living on Alcatraz Island and taking the boat each day to the mainland for school and coming and playing in the yard of the Warden’s house.  They were separated from the prison by a bit of space and she said they had a lovely childhood.  Other stories tell of prisoners on New Year’s Eve being able to hear the orchestra play from the grand outdoor party near the water across the harbour. The stories of how the only recorded escape from Alcatraz were achieved are harrowing.  This is one tour that definitely gets you thinking about what it must be like to be in prison.

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IN THE KITCHEN THE KNIFE BOX HAD SILHOUETTES SO IT COULD BE QUICKLY SPOTTED IF A KNIFE WAS MISSING.  THIS VISUAL CUE COULD SAVE THE LIFE OF A GUARD

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THE REC YARD OF THE PRISON

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LOOKING UP AT THE OLD WARDEN’S HOUSE WHICH WAS DESTROYED BY FIRE

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THE PRISONERS WERE ENCOURAGED TO GARDEN

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EVEN IF ONE COULD GET OFF THE ISLAND, THE COLD WATER AND RIP TIDES WOULD FINISH OFF ANY PRISONER THAT TRIED TO ESCAPE …  AND THE 40 FOOT DROP FROM THE CLIFFS TO GET TO ROCKY SEA BELOW WAS ALSO A DETERRENT

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Only 3 prisoners ever escaped Alcatraz, and their escape was made into a Clint Eastwood Movie – “Escape From Alcatraz”.  While the movie isn’t 100% factual, it is interesting to note that the prisoners escaped at night, and have never been found. Some say they drowned in the ocean, but others say they are still alive and living in South America in hiding.  It is a mystery that will likely never be solved.

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At the end of the cell block tour, there is an exhibit that identifies that the U.S.A. has the highest incarceration rate in the world.  It speaks out against prison as a form of restitution, and one of the inmates says “This place never did nobody no good.”    You get the sense that the idea of touring the prison is not to glorify the system, but to question how locking people up helps them, or society.

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As you continue to wander the island after you finish the audio tour, you come across the old military barracks and exhibits on life on the island before it became a prison.  Alcatraz closed its doors as a state prison on March 21 1963.  Since that time it has had an active  life including a 19 month occupation by Native Americans claiming the island as their own.   We spent a total of 3 hours on the island and our final stop was an exhibit in the laundry building called “Prisoners Of Age.”

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THIS POSTER IN THE PRISONERS OF AGE EXHIBIT SHOWS THAT 31 854 PRISONERS IN THE U.S. PRISON SYSTEM ARE OVER 70.

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This exhibit had photos of prisoners who are presently incarcerated, but are over the age of 70.  The photos were taken with an intent to normalize the inmates, so had them dressed in regular clothes in parks or other natural settings.  Below each photo was a few lines about the crime they had committed, why they had done it and how long they had served.  Some of the crimes were chilling.  Some of them … were less so.  In all cases, the inmates were over 70, and in many cases in wheelchairs.  Probably one of the most complex statements in the exhibit was a warden who said “In the prison I work at, when they call the prisoners down for their meals it takes over an hour to get them there, for close to 100 of them are in wheelchairs.  It is more like a nursing home than a prison.  None of these people have the physical strength to re-offend, though some of them may still harbour connections to those that could.  But even if we released them at this point, where would they go?  Few of them have family left, and those that do, the families have disowned them.  In a way, our prison has become a nursing home for criminals.  Some days I wake up and I truly wonder what it is that we are doing here, and how did it reach this point?”  His comments were thought-provoking and as we sailed away from the island, Pete and I had a lively discussion about if jail time is a deterrent to crime and what the alternatives are.  In our opinion, Alcatraz is an outstanding attraction with great views, an opportunity to see something unique and also a chance to reflect on human values.   Definitely a must-see for any tourist to San Francisco.

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From the cell block …

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Fenton & White

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