Upon awaking we were happy to discover that instead of San Francisco’s usual fog and moderate temperatures we were slated for three straight days of 70-degree weather and sunshine. It was very much pressed upon us from the locals that this weather for three days in a row is nearly unheard of. After braving negative wind chills, we were ready for some sun! We started our day off by walking to Pier 33 where our ferry from Alcatraz Cruises departed for Alcatraz Island. I had never visited the famous jail and was told by several people that for a popular tourist spot, it’s actually a very cool experience. Even though it was a Thursday, the 10:00am tour we departed on seemed to be a packed ship, I was happy that it was recommended we purchase tickets ahead of time.
Alcatraz is known as one of the world’s most legendary prisons and being a fan of anything dark and twisty I was excited to learn more about its history. The island operated as a prison from 1934 to 1963 and held notorious criminals such as Al "Scarface" Capone, and the "Birdman" Robert Stroud. TT#1 couldn’t help blurting out the whole trip, “Welcome to the Rock!” from the Sean Connery/Nic Cage movie, “The Rock”. Traditional museums never seem to hold my attention very long and I loved that Alcatraz was a very interactive experience.
An audio tour of the island explained that before Alcatraz was a criminal prison the island also served as both a harbor defense fort and military prison. Later on after the prison closed, the island was part of an American Indian Occupation that started in 1969 and ended shortly thereafter. One of the most interesting parts of the tour was about the families and children who lived on the island during its years as a prison and their almost disturbingly normal lifestyle in the shadow of criminal masterminds.
I also really enjoyed the stories of the attempted escapes from the prison. My favorite was about three prisoners who attempted escape by placing dummy heads in their beds and escaping through an unused utility corridor they accessed by drilling a hole through the wall in their cells. Most people believe that they drowned trying to get off the island, but their bodies were never found.
In addition to the traditional Alcatraz tour, we also had access to a super unique art installation by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Four different areas of the prison usually restricted to the public hosted Ai’s sculpture, sound, and mixed-media installations. The goal of Weiwei’s exhibit is to create a conversation about the definitions of liberty and justice, individual rights and personal responsibility.
A vocal critic of his nation’s government, Ai was secretly detained by Chinese authorities for 81 days in 2011, and is still not permitted to travel outside China. As a result, the artist was unable to visit Alcatraz during the planning of this exhibition. He developed the artwork at his studio in Beijing and sent all the pieces for the exhibition from Beijing. My favorite part of the exhibit was a room full of Lego© portraits done by the artist that depicted individuals from around the world who have been persecuted for speaking out about their beliefs, such as Mr. Weiwei.
Our original goal of spending two hours on Alcatraz turned into three and we certainly could have spent even more time on the rock. Our tummy’s rumbling, we boarded the ferry back to the mainland feeling satisfied about our educational part of the trip and ready for lunch!
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