Bobby Kerr’s escape for Alcatraz

"This is dark tourism at its best"

Alcatraz Island is a must see site and experience. I was lucky enough to visit it last week as part of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Retreat. 

The first thing that hits you about it is how close it is to the mainland (just 1.25 miles from the shore). It stands as a constant reminder to San Francisco of its dark penal past.

The prison is located on a 12 acre site. As I stepped off the boat onto the island my first impression was that this is a damp, dark and dreary place with the fog rolling in fast from the Pacific.

The former prison and now tourist attraction is run by the National Park Services, our guide for our tour was (the Irish-sounding) Jim Cantwell who immediately hit us with some stark facts.

It was built as a citadel in the 1860’s and then operated as a military prison from 1910 till 1933 and then it became a prison for 29 years from 1934 to 1963. It was a maximum high security prison which housed over 1,500 prisoners during its 29 year operating life.

Some of its famous inmates Al Capone, Robert Franklyn Stroud (The Legendary Birdman) George Machine Gun Kelly and Alvin 'Creepy' Karpis. Interestingly Karpis taught Charles Manson how to play the guitar on the island.

A total of 36 prisoners made 14 escape attempts; the most notable of which was a the violent escape attempt of 1946 known as the Battle of Alcatraz. No one ever successfully escaped the rock but five bodies remain unaccounted for to this day.

There was one officer for every three prisoners on the island. In 1963 Bobby Kennedy closed the prison as it was costing too much to run.

In 1969 the island was occupied for 18 months by Native Americans in protest about its ownership, which they claimed was their territory. Some graffiti from that time still remains in plain sight.

During the tour I was struck by how 'untouched' the prison remains. You could almost feel the spirit of the inmates in their incarceration. In the TV room which doubled as chapel the chairs stood eerily in a row and you could imagine prisoners staring longingly at Marilyn Monroe and Doris Day in the blockbusters of the time. 

The machinery for the opening and closing of 12 cell doors at a time remains operational and the resulting ‘slam’  still conjures up fear and intimidation.

I was quite surprised at the confined space of the cells which were the size of a pool table. Prisoners were confined in these tiny cells for a staggering 23 hours each day.

During the tour we were brought to the solitary confinement cells in the basement where prisoners remained in total darkness for up to 19 days at a time.

It’s fascinating and perhaps ironic that an institution that was closed due to financial constraints is now the biggest tourist attraction in California with 1.5 million people visiting a year.

This is dark tourism at its best.