Alcatraz Island: History from prison to Native American occupation

Alcatraz Island was home to one of America’s toughest prisons. It was also here that my brother stepped into the world’s spotlight during the Native American occupation.

My brother Johnny was an activist, actor and musical performer. His spoken word inspired many people of all backgrounds. He passed away Dec. 8th. He was 69. His activism and his eloquent speaking  style came to the world’s stage during an occupation of Alcatraz by a group of Native Americans in the late 1960s.

Johnny arrived at Alcatraz by way of Nebraska and then the United States Navy. He joined the Navy at 17. After completing his military term, he stayed in California. He eventually joined the Alcatraz occupation. He soon became  spokesman for the group. From there, his public career took off.

So, in honor of my brother, we’d like to rerun our story on our visit to the former island prison. Rest in Peace, Brother.

View of Alcatraz from the mainland

Alcatraz is called “The Rock.” It sits in San Francisco Bay, minutes away from the city by boat. It was a place where prisoners who could not be controlled went to spend their time.

Visiting Alcatraz is an awesome experience – both sobering and exhilarating. You can see where some of the most famous criminals spent their time behind bars – Al Capone, “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert Stroud, better known as “The Birdman of Alcatraz.”

No one is known to have successfully escaped from Alcatraz. Three men escaped the facility and entered into the cold waters.  Three men were never found, but it was not expected they survived the cold temperatures or the difficult swim to shore. Almost 40 people tried, some were shot and killed by the guards.

The prison facility was later home to a Native American occupation in the late 1960s. A personal note of interest for me is that my brother was involved with the occupation. After the Native Americans left the grounds after several months, the prison stood empty. In 1986, it was turned into a national park.

A reminder from the 1960s occupation by a group of Native Americans, including my brother, John

Knowing that your brother was involved with a major event in the American Indian Movement was one thing, but visiting the site was something else. I mentioned John’s involvement to one of the park rangers. He replied that he had read a lot about his role. He said he found John to be quite articulate and a true leader. It gave me a special sense of pride at that moment.

Touring Alcatraz is special. The weather can be different throughout the day.  It presents unique experiences for the visitor. The area is typically cool because of the Pacific winds. It can be sunny at one point, foggy, wet, etc.

Fog rolls in and out over the Bay often

During the day, you can see the skyline of San Francisco. This apparently irritated the inmates when the prison was open. Viewing the beautiful scenery and hearing voices, music drove the inmates crazy. It was true punishment. There was nothing they could do.

Visiting the park at night during one of the last boat trips over sometimes allows people to see things that earlier visitors cannot see, such as the infirmary. The park will open other areas for visitors.

We went on a Friday night, “Date Night” for us during our vacation in San Francisco. A heavy fog moved in during our boat ride out to the prison. It prevented us from seeing the skyline once on ground. While that was a bummer, we loved the fog. It added eeriness to the prison as we walked around in the dusk to darkness. Knowing that people such as Capone experienced the same feelings was cool.

The walk from the dock to the prison conjured thoughts of what it must have been like to be sentenced there

Park rangers welcome you at the dock. They take people in small groups to start the tours, stopping at certain points and reliving the history of “The Rock.” Once inside the cell block building, they let you move about on your own terms. Each visitor is given a headset for an audio tour. The tours are done in a variety of national languages. It was an educational experience.

The tour takes visitors through the various cell blocks, named after streets. “Broadway” was where new inmates were paraded in front of the “residents.”  There were guard units as the end of the cell blocks, where armed guards aimed rifles through small holes.

The main cell row. Many hardened criminals lived here.

Inmates could visit a library. The view from the library on a clear day would show the city. The cafeteria had tear gas along the walls in case inmates tried to riot.

The prison yard allowed a view of the city. Since the fog was so thick, we could barely see past the prison wall. The theme seemed to be to show inmates what they were missing in life, adding a little bit of torture to their prison sentences.

A torturous view of the City from Alcatraz

Visiting the prison exceeded our expectations. It also became personal to me because of Johnny’s role. It is a must-see for any trip to the Bay area. We’ll go there again on our next trip.