Would you ever reopen Alcatraz Island?

San Francisco, CA. A cold chill creeps down our spines as we stride through the corridors. Our steps clack on the old floors and echo off the walls. We are on a sightseeing tour of the former Alcatraz State Prison, which was in operation in San Francisco Bay, USA from 1934 to 1963. It was considered a maximum security prison at the time and housed a total of 651 prisoners, many of whom were known to be the most dangerous criminals of their time.

The secrets of the prison island of Alcatraz

One inmate reports

Everyday life in prison in Alcatraz

Escape attempt from Alcatraz | Lasting memories

A chat with an Alcatraz prisoner

We were the first group of tourists to take the boat to the island very early in the morning, which can be seen from the mainland on a clear day. So early in the morning there is still thick fog over the bay and envelops the island, which is now a nature reserve, in a mysterious twilight. Then it seems as if she is not really there. A ghost islandfrom which the old prison looks back on the seemingly normal world. What was it like, the feeling when the fog cleared and this island suddenly appeared out of nowhere? When you looked over on a harmless weekend stroll on the beach and realized that just a few miles away the most dangerous people in the whole country were being held captive while you went about your own life? Robber, rapist, Mass murderer. Psychopaths. Ruthless killers. People for whom life was worthless, who had no natural inhibition from harming others. Killing other people's lives. Some have been locked away in Alcatraz for breaking the rules, violating others, or trying to escape in their previous prisons.

Alcatraz Tours:
  • Alcatraz Day Tour: daily from 8.45 a.m., last appointment at 1.35 p.m., price: approx. 36 € for adults including ferry & audio guide.
  • Alcatraz Night Tour: daily at 3:50 p.m. and on selected days at 4:45 p.m., price: approx. € 42 for adults including ferry, audio guide & guided tour

As we get out of the boat and enter the island, a beige caped employee of the Alcatraz National Park tells us these first stories with a half smile over a microphone. She points to an older man next to her - "This is William Baker". And before we can ask ourselves who it is, she explains straight out: “Mr. Baker has been an inmate here for the last few years Alcatraz has been in operation. He was brought to Alcatraz in 1957 ... ". William G. Baker is over 80 years old and spent almost 50 years of his life in various prisons around the country. So he was in jail longer than he was free. "I came to Alcatraz because my old prison didn't particularly appreciate it when the inmates flee," he explains. What the hell had he done? The goosebumps are definitely there now. Baker wrote a book about his stay here, so he's with us today. But I'm no longer interested in that at all. A sepia veil falls before my eyes over the weathered building above us on the hill, which looks gloomily down at us with its dirty windows, the stained walls and the old lamps covered with cobwebs. We look up in awe and fearfully take the first steps towards the gates of Alcatraz.

Formerly a maximum security prison, today a tourist magnet

This island used to be a place of horror that nobody could get away from. Today people are queuing in front of the ticket booth before the sun has risen. If it rises at all, in this often fog-entwined city on the Pacific. The boats go to the island every 30 minutes. They are transporting tourists with their cameras at the ready. The head full of sensationalism. In which cell sat Al Capone? Did anyone ever escape from the island? When we enter the interior of the prison, which at the time could hold 336 criminals at once, we are greeted by its gloomy atmosphere. Silence sets in immediately in our group, who are the first to walk through these corridors that day as we are led through a space. This is completely fenced in by bars and soon inevitably separates us from the "outside world" of which we were just a part. The headphones that we received greet us with atmospheric music. Soon we are all tense and listening to the voice of Stanley Ferguson, who will guide us from here.

Stanley introduces himself to us as a former jailer, so he knows his way around these corridors that we now enter through the bars. He invites us to be part of his former world, he wants to show us how it was. In Alcatraz in the years when the cells were still full of dangerous prisoners. A long corridor welcomes us, to the left and right the cells extend as far as the eye can see. Cell next to cell over three floors Criminals next to criminals in a confined space. The bars extend over the entire corridor. We look through it: a narrow bed, a toilet, above it a shelf. Two steps on which you can put something. A cup, for example. A game board. A letter from the family. Many of the cells we can see from here are very weathered. Time has gnawed at them harder than at the lower rooms, some of which are maintained by the facility for illustrative purposes. In the upper cells, on the other hand, the plaster is crumbling from the walls, layers of dust are now lying on the beds instead of mattresses, and the toilets have been torn out. Mold crawls from the corners over the walls. The wetness was also the reason why the prison had to close in 1963. After almost 30 years of operation, the sea and the winds had eaten away the walls of the bunker-like building so much that further use could no longer be justified.

... it's cold and loud and scary

You can see it. The color is crumbling, it is moldy. We can hear the wind whistling around the walls, it rattles the old windows. It's very quiet here today. I imagine how they sat here, the inmates. Damned by society for their actions, deported to this island that nobody cares about. Just this window in front of your eyes, through which you can catch a glimpse of the world of which you were once a part. Who no longer wants you. On the left Bill is listening to the radio, on the right Henry complains that he cannot read in peace. The sun is about to go down. Outside the bay, outside the people, outside the world. A completely normal day. Seven more years. There are three of these courses. We pace them in awe, not making a sound. It is no longer quiet. We can now hear them through the headphones, the inmates calling, beating the bars with their cups, greeting us, the "newcomers," with mockery and malice. Because we come to this prison naked, as Stanley explains to us. As in a rebirth, we are sent naked through these corridors, it's cold and loud and scary before we get a shirt, pants, shoes, soap, a mug and our bedding and at the end are reborn as a number. We lost our identity with the old clothes. Nobody cares about them on Alcatraz. We have no name, no rights, no identity. We are like cattle to be fed and kept for a while.

In the last corridor there are three cells that are different from the rest. Because they are actually not cells. Rather, they are caves that we are put into when we are not good. Maybe a fight, maybe just the wrong word to one of the guards. Who cares. They call it solitary confinement, we call it an eternity in nowhere. When they close the doors, you lose all sense of time and space. The cave has no light, no bed, no chair, no furniture. Just bare, cold ground. The voice of a former prisoner reveals to the visitors: “If you tear off a button, you can let it fly in the cave. You hear it crash and spend the next few minutes looking for it. I've always spent my time in here with it ”. Day or night, winter or summer? How much time has passed

The attempt to escape ends in a bloodbath in 1946

The blood of our visitors really freezes in our veins when Stanley starts to talk about an attempted escape. He has fellow inmates and guards who tell us their side of the story. On a board that hangs on the wall, we can see the faces of the three prisoners who were one of them in 1946 brutal attempt to escape undertook that this is known to this day as the "Battle of Alcatraz". We listen to the sounds of Bernard Coy, a bank robber sentenced to 25 years in prison, one day in May together with an accomplice named Marvin Hubbard at the "Gun Gallery" overwhelmed one of the guards and through a previously spotted and widened gap forcing into one of the cell ducts in the bar wall. He only fits through here because he starved himself down to the right size beforehand. Coy steals the keeper's keys and several weapons, all of which he throws down at his accomplice. Coy then continues along the Gun Gallery to cell block D, where he overpowers another guard and forces him to unlock block C. The isolation cells are also located there. By opening the door, Corwin, the guard, gave several prisoners free access to the cell passage. In fact, some of them just return to their cells, but not all. Many people join the insurgents. The two guards Miller and Corwin are locked in one of the cells.

Next, the insurgents look for the key that will bring them to the courtyard and the freedom they are hoping for. But it is not in its normal place, on a cord above the corridor. When the inmates realize that one of the captured guards has hidden the key with him, it is already too late. Many more guards have already been alerted and are on their way towards the crime scene. You get to the courtyard door and try out some of the keys on the collar, while the insurgents have to assert themselves against more and more guards streaming in. In the end, they hold nine of them trapped in two cells. When the courtyard door still cannot be opened and the escape is doomed to failure, more and more frustration spreads. The big alarm siren howls. Panic breaks out.

“No eyewitnesses are allowed!” Shouts one of the three, Joe Cretzer. As if in a frenzy and out of sheer disappointment, he begins to shoot. He shoots through the bars at the guards lying on the floor who have been locked in the cell. One of them must die, executed and without a chance. Another, however, notes down the names of all the insurgents.
Then a real battle breaks out. More guards gain access to the scene and are shot at directly by the three remaining insurgents. The electricity is cut and the army even sends marines to the prison to rescue the prisoners. In the end, the marines threw grenades from helicopters over the island through holes in the ceiling into the building. The prison is said to be under fire for a whole day before the bodies of the three leaders Bernard Coy, Marvin Hubbard and Joe Cretzer can finally be recovered. Two more insurgents are then executed in the gas chamber.

An experience for all the senses

I run my fingers along the impact holes that the grenades made. All the din and screaming, the shots and the panicked pounding of feet are booming in my ears. Much suffering has happened here and has been in the air ever since. The hair on the back of my neck stands on end and I'm happy in the end when I can step out of prison and breathe the fresh air. Something that wasn't that easy here for decades. The mood is still a bit depressed on the boat back to the mainland. We now know from the gift shop that William Baker, the book author from the beginning of our trip, “only” sat for repeated fraud. Nevertheless, it takes up to the mainland to shake off the feeling of trepidation completely.

Much suffering has happened here and has been in the air ever since

The visit to Alcatraz was one of the moments that left the greatest impression on me of all my travels. With every step further into the building my muscles tensed and all senses sharpened as I listened to the voices from the audio guide. As I walked down the hallways, I imagined all of these stories actually taking place in front of my eyes. Creepy - until today. Alcatraz is definitely worth a trip and I can only recommend it to anyone who likes scary stories! The thick fog over San Francisco Bay usually does the rest. But: You should get tickets early in advance, the tour is often fully booked for days!

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