Sunday, 12 October 2014

A prison with a view

There's a former Alcatraz prisoner in the gift shop on the famous San Francisco prison island signing copies of his new book.

Apparently it's a great read for those who have burning questions about what life inside the prison was like.

But my one burning question is: What were you in for?

Am I in the gift shop with a murderer, rapist or other?

Alcatraz from San Francisco

Then other questions pop into my head.

Am I able to fling this stand of t-shirts over to defend myself?  Will this tower of souvenir mugs make suitable projectile weapons?  And just how strong are these Alcatraz key rings; could they be makeshift knuckle busters?

I'm clearly the only one thinking these things as the line get this prisoner's autograph is getting longer.
Approaching Alcatraz

There's a special irony to the fact that this prisoner, who no doubt longed for the day he would escape Alcatraz, is back here voluntarily making a buck off his experience.

As the saying goes: those who break the rules go to prison, those who break prison rules go to Alcatraz.

Today, Alcatraz has transcended from being a mere former prison to a symbol of captivity and inescapable hell.

View from the inside

The place stopped being a prison in the 1960s, and a couple of decades of degeneration add to the bleak and oppressive atmosphere.

But I'm surprised by what a lovely view it offers of San Francisco, it's bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.  A view that no doubt taunted the prisoners and reminded them of everything they were missing out on.

Inside a cell
The prison itself is also surprisingly small, thanks in part to the fact that the cells are so small, with just enough room for a toilet and bed.   I count about six three-storey rows of cells.  Central skylights above tease the prisoners about what might be happening outside.
Rows of prison cells

The prisoners' only taste of the outdoors was a relatively small, concreted "recreation space" - complete with water views.

The recreation space
Since the prison closed, the island has seen more activity than ever.

An American Indian occupation from 1969 to 1971 turned the spotlight on native rights, while today more than 5,000 people a day visit the Alcatraz as a tourist attraction (that's more than double the number of prisoners who ever spent time here during the decades of its operation as a prison).

You certainly get a sense of its popularity while waiting in the lengthy lines to board to the island ferry and to walk through the prison buildings.

Needless to say, there's a certain Alcatraz allure that keeps people coming... and lining up to talk to its former prisoners.

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