It's just a short boat ride, and it's a good fifteen minutes from Alcatraz to the mainland in San Francisco. But for 27 men, March 21, 1963 was a momentous journey. They were the last inmates to leave the notorious prison and be transferred to other prisons 60 years ago. The San Francisco Chronicle described them as "pale, silent" men who went ashore handcuffed and tied by the ankles with their heads bowed.
Today, Alcatraz Island is a heritage and conservation area as a museum and breeding ground for many birds. But for 29 years, the "rock" in San Francisco Bay was the place of exile for the "worst of the worst", for troublemakers and escape kings. It was an escape-proof prison for criminals like mob boss Al Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Alvin "Creepy" Karpis and Robert Stroud.
Everyone had a number, behind a total of 1,576 men the lattice doors to the cells, which were only 1.50 by 2.70 meters, closed for almost 30 years from 1934. However, there were never more than 300 prisoners at the same time. Many guards lived with their families on the barren rocky island, at times with dozens of children.
Darwin Coon, ex-prisoner #1422, served as a convicted bank robber from 1959 until its closure. "29 days in Block D, in a bitterly cold dark cell without a ray of light," is Coon's worst memory. The then 73-year-old told visitors to Alcatraz in 2006 that he had been caught with a knife he had bought for self-defense. He had written a book about his experiences. Coon and other ex-cons later returned to the island voluntarily, as speakers and tourist guides.
Coon, who died in 2011, was a felon but not a murderer like infamous roommates including Robert Stroud, Alcatraz's legendary birdman. Coon had witnessed the prison's closure in 1963. Operating costs had become too high. Water and food had to be brought to the island, two kilometers from the mainland, by boat. In the rough sea air, the old buildings fell into disrepair. In addition, the living conditions had been criticized as inhuman. Attorney General Robert Kennedy ordered the closure.
Everyone should look at this place for a deterrent, Coon advised his listeners in 2006. At the time, he lived in San Francisco, just a few blocks from the harbor pier, where ferries depart daily for Alcatraz. "It's clearly better to look at the island from here than the other way round looking at the city from the cell."
In 1972, Alcatraz was declared a monument and opened to visitors. Now the "Rock" attracts more than a million visitors every year. You can enter the cold cells through rusty lattice doors and see the dining room and shower facilities.
You also learn about the spectacular eruption of a trio in June 1962. Using scoops and an improvised drill, brothers John and Clarence Anglin and Frank Morris dug through walls and ventilation shafts. They continued on a raft that they had assembled out of rubber raincoats, among other things. The authorities are convinced that the detainees drowned in the cold water with its dangerous currents. But there are indications that the men may have actually managed to escape (read more here).
About 40 prisoners have tried to escape over the years. Most were caught, some shot trying to escape, others drowned. Only in five cases did their fate remain unknown.
Made famous by gangster stories and crime adventures starring movie stars like Clint Eastwood and Burt Lancaster, the myth lives on. The visitor attraction is a sought-after Hollywood backdrop for films such as "The Prisoner of Alcatraz", "Escape from Alcatraz", "Murder in the First" and "The Rock".
The rocky island, which is a good 500 meters long, is also an important breeding ground for seabirds. Spanish sailors once christened it "La isla de los Alcatraces", the "Island of the Pelicans".