Alcatraz has become a popular tourist stop Endurance: The former fortress, stockade and federal penitentiary is now host to more than 750,000 visitors a year.

June 30, 1996|By Carol Bidwell | Carol Bidwell,LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS

It's eerie to be here, surrounded by concrete and cold steel bars, with the lights and laughter of the city less than two miles away, across the bay's cold, treacherous waters.

But this is the somber, bleak atmosphere of Alcatraz, the hilltop fortress known as "The Rock," where for 30 years, the nation's most notorious criminals -- including "Scarface" Al Capone and George "Machine Gun" Kelly -- were incarcerated.

"It was terrible," former inmate Nathan Glenn Williams said, standing just a few steps from the 9-by-5-foot cell where he served seven years for bank robbery in the 1950s. "It had the reputation as a place that would break a man. It lived up to its reputation."

Now, more than 150 years after it was created as a Union Army fortress and stockade and more than 30 years since the last federal prisoner was removed, moviegoers can get a dramatic look at the former island prison in the action megahit "The Rock."

Visitors can also get an in-person look. As part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Alcatraz annually receives more than 750,000 visitors, who wander in and out of the cells and marvel at tales of murder and attempted escapes.

The island prison's popularity with tourists amazes Williams, who was caught robbing his 25th bank and became prisoner No. 1103 in 1953. He was released in 1959, and become a successful Seattle businessman and writer.

When National Park Service officials took over Alcatraz in the early 1970s and asked Williams to come back occasionally and share his lockup experiences with visitors, he initially refused.

"I told them no one would come here to see a prison," Williams recalled.

Yet several times a day, boats filled with tourists make the 10-minute trip from San Francisco's Pier 41 to the dock where the country's worst criminals got their first glimpse of their future home.

Williams finally agreed to revisit the prison, partly out of curiosity. "The first time I came back, it was very traumatic," he said. "It all DTC came back to me, everything that happened here. It took me two or three days to get over it. Now, I come back every once in a while to talk to people about the way it was here."

Island visitors can view a 12-minute film about the island's history and poke through a small bookstore, where former guards and former inmates like Williams sometimes answer questions and pose for photos. Then they make the long climb, about three-quarters of a mile, to the cell house at the top of the island.

Hear it now

In the cell house, visitors can borrow a small tape player and earphones so they can hear inmates and a former warden describe the monotonous days at the prison, from which no inmate ever escaped -- and lived.

The rules for prisoners were simple: Do as you're told, and you can have periodic visitors, library and work privileges.

"You don't behave yourself, and we're going to come down on you like a ton of bricks," a guard recalls on the taped tour.

Prisoners who violated the rules could end up in solitary confinement in D Block; some spent years there.

Those who tried to escape or who assaulted a guard or another inmate wound up in "the hole" -- cells 9 through 14 -- which were simply steel boxes with a drain in the floor for a toilet. Two meals a day were passed through a slot in the door, bedding was issued only at night and prisoners spent their time -- from only a few days to several weeks -- in total darkness.

Outside those cells, the clank of a door resounds on the taped tour, and rangers will lock visitors who request it into the dark cells for a second or two so they can see how prisoners might have felt. (Very few people take advantage of the opportunity, rangers say.)

Early uses

Discovered by the Spanish in 1775, it was chosen by military engineers in 1848 as the perfect place for a fort to defend San Francisco's harbor. In 1854, the first lighthouse on the Pacific Coast was built on the island. Alcatraz housed Confederate prisoners during the Civil War, and was designated a permanent military prison in 1892.

In 1933, at the height of an unprecedented national crime wave, the prison was turned over to the U.S. Department of Justice. "Desperate and irredeemable" inmates from other prisons, as well as gangsters who tried to run their organization from inside prison walls, were the inmates.

In 1934, Capone arrived for a five-year stay on tax-evasion charges.

Murderer Robert Stroud, portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the 1962 movie "Birdman of Alcatraz," arrived in 1942, spending 17 years in solitary confinement. But, despite what the movie shows, he never had birds to keep him company, rangers say. It was while he was imprisoned at Leavenworth, Kan. -- where he stabbed a guard to death in 1916 -- that he captured and studied birds that flew into his cell.

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