I admit, I hesitated before boarding the ferry to spend the night in a prison cell on “the Rock.” Over the summer, the volunteers restoring the Gardens of Alcatraz (partially funded, incidentally, by a National Trust grant) were offered the chance to sleep over on the island as a “thank you” for their hard work. Being the “history guy” and all, I was invited as the guest of a gardener friend.
It didn’t exactly sound like a relaxing Saturday night. But when another friend looked me squarely in the eye and said, “You can’t not do this,” I decided to hop on the boat.
Alcatraz is a four-acre sandstone island, jutting 130 feet out of San Francisco Bay. First fortified by the military to defend California’s gold rush riches, it became the nation’s most feared and secretive federal penitentiary from 1934 until it closed in 1963. With no media permitted, it was a place of great fascination to the American public. And with approximately 1.5 million visitors each year to the island, now managed by the National Park Service, it still is.
At Alcatraz, the human imagination is forced into gear as soon as one steps off the boat. Its architecture and design was devoted to maximize the government’s control over some of the most dangerous felons. The visitor must ask: how would I fare if confined to the narrow walls, iron bars, extensive fencing, and 24/7 surveillance with hundreds of other inmates who have done things far outside of acceptable moral standards?
And, as you might imagine, Alcatraz after dark provides even more fodder for the mind. On the night tour offered to the public that evening, we heard stories of attempted escapes, notorious prison personalities, and the monotony of daily life behind bars. You know, kind of like the ghost stories at summer camp -- except real.
After the public left on the last ferry, we overnight guests were free to choose our accommodations. I inspected, but opted against, the solitary confinement cells in the D block. Instead, I chose to sleep in the cell of Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz.”
Stroud kept birds while in the pen in Leavenworth, but he was prohibited from keeping them after he was transferred to the Rock. Because of his “unpredictable and violent outbursts,” Stroud spent six years in solitary, and the remaining eleven of his life isolated in the hospital wing cell where I stayed. Despite his antisocial behavior, he published two landmark books on bird illness while in jail.
I rolled out my sleeping bag on the cold, concrete floor and stared at an old picture of Stroud during his incarceration in the same room. That's when history started coming alive. Unsuspecting heritage travelers, take note: August on the San Francisco Bay is brutally cold. That night, while the rest of the country sweltered under heat, Alcatraz had whipping winds driving a dense fog. Old, creaky pipes rattled incessantly. The wind tunneled through the corridors that seemed to be almost deliberately designed to accentuate its howls.
When the lights shut off, Alcatraz’s isolation was fully apparent. I glimpsed the deep loneliness the prisoners must have felt. There was no way out. The waters are not only frigid and constantly turbulent, but guards also convinced prisoners that sharks circled the island. (They don’t, but it helped thwart any notion that escape was possible.)
At 5:30 a.m., proud to have made it through the night, I woke up my friend who chose to sleep in the prison’s operating room. Yes, the operating room -- in which the main object is a lone surgical table. We put on warm layers and went to take photographs and watch the dawn break. At the top of the island’s lighthouse we gazed upon the sensitively-installed 1,300 solar panels recently installed on the cell house roof.
After returning home the next day I read about the lesser-known inmates of Alcatraz, the stories that challenge its infamous reputation. There were those who are redeemable in history’s eyes: a conscientious objector to the First World War, and a group of Hopi Indians who refused to send their children to government boarding schools. Other inmates defied the violent stereotypes; they tended gardens and even babysat the children of guards.
So, even though I left knowing that the conventional image of Alcatraz is sensationalized, I was still quite glad to have an escape.